CHAMPAIGN — Branden Comia had a valuable resource to fall back on last season while he adjusted to Division I college baseball.
The then-Illinois freshman was roommates with Michael Massey during the Illini’s road trips. That offered the chance for the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Orland Park native to constantly ask questions of Massey.
Not a bad person to learn the tools of the trade from considering Massey, the former Illinois second baseman, was a fourth-round pick of the Kansas City Royals during last summer’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Picked 109th overall, Massey was the highest drafted middle infielder in program history.
“It was like every night I was asking (Massey) something about the game,” Comia said. “I think that really helped me. It was more me asking how to approach every day. We get videos on opposing pitchers, and I would say, ‘Hey, what’s your approach going up against this guy.’ We’d talk about everyday stuff, how to keep your body healthy and mind healthy and in the right headspace.”
Now, Comia is hoping to put those many lessons to use in his second season at Illinois. The Carl Sandburg graduate already has plenty of experience under his belt. With Massey and Ben Troike slowed by injuries last season, Comia was asked to play at both second base and shortstop, making a combined 42 starts for an Illini team that returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Comia is expected to start at shortstop Friday when Illinois begins the 2020 season this weekend in Winston Salem, N.C., where the Illini will face Milwaukee at 11:30 a.m. Friday before games against Seton Hall (9 a.m. Saturday) and No. 18 Wake Forest (1 p.m. Sunday). The sophomore will have big shoes to fill as the immediate replacement for Troike, who is currently playing pro ball after being an 11th-round selection of the Tampa Bay Rays this past June.
Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said freshman Brody Harding will start at second base against the Panthers Friday.
Hartleb, back for his 15th season in charge of the Illini, is confident Comia is up to the challenge of leading the middle infield. Comia, after all, arrived at Illinois as the No. 13-ranked shortstop nationally for the Class of 2018 by Prep Baseball Report.
“If you look at the God-given talent, there’s a lot there,” Hartleb said. “The fact that he does have some experience and didn’t let things bother him last year when he played early on as a young player — and when he sat for a while just because guys were healthy and back. He got an opportunity to jump back in there at the end of the season. Mentally, he handled that stuff very, very well, and so not only am I pleased with the physical side of things but the mental capacity that he has and the things that he’s capable of doing.
“I always tell Branden I think he’s a really good player. I think he’ll be a great player once he trusts his ability even more. He continues to mature in that area.”
Comia hit .255 as a freshman with four home runs and 22 RBI. He was effective in the field, as well, with a .970 fielding percentage and just six errors in 46 games played.
Illinois will need more of the same production from Comia, who is one of only four returning regulars from last season’s 36-21 team, along with redshirt sophomore and Centennial graduate Kellen Sarver, sophomore Cam McDonald and sophomore Jacob Campbell.
Comia said, with a roster that features 18 newcomers, including 12 true freshmen, he understands it’s important for him to take on more of a leadership role.
“I wouldn’t say I’m very much of a vocal guy but I just kind of want to do things the right way and hopefully influence my teammates around me while I’m doing that,” Comia said. “I am looking to be one of the most consistent players on the field, as well. That’s my goal.”
The expectations around the program, at least in Comia’s estimation, haven’t changed despite seeing three juniors (Cyrillo Watson, Massey and Troike) leave a year early to pursue a pro career and valuable seniors like Grant Van Scoy, Zac Taylor and Jack Yalowitz exhaust their eligibility after last season. Taylor and Yalowitz are in the minor-league systems for the Cubs and Rockies, respectively.
Illinois’ lack of success in postseason play, an 0-2 showing at the Big Ten tournament in Omaha, Neb., and a quick 0-2 exit in an NCAA regional in Oxford, Miss., left a sour taste in the Illini’s mouth.
“I think we’ve got a great group of guys,” Comia said. “You know we didn’t really have the postseason that we wanted going 0-4 last year. I think for the returners, it made us more hungry and it kind of changed our mindset of, like ‘Hey, instead of just making it to a regional, let’s go win the whole thing and go as far as we can.’ We don’t want to be content to just make it there.”