Acton puts major league dreams on hold to pursue college degree

 

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CHAMPAIGN — When Garrett Acton wasn't selected earlier this month in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, it might have been a surprise to those outside the Illinois baseball program.

Acton, after all, was the regular season saves leader. His 19 saves still lead the nation, despite the Illini's season ending three weeks ago in an NCAA regional in Oxford, Miss.

The postseason accolades have poured in for the former Parkland College standout, who posted a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings with 34 strikeouts to only 18 walks during his breakout first season with the Illini.

The Lemont native has collected first team All-American honors from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Perfect Game/Rawlings and second team All-American recognition from ABCA and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

Here's the kicker: Acton had the chance to go pro.

But he chose to return for his final season at Illinois.

Acton said he had discussions with a few MLB clubs on the third day of the draft in the "late teen" rounds, with the slot value of that pick in the range of $100,000.

It wasn't enough for Acton to leave early.

"It's a tough decision. Everybody dreams as an athlete of playing professionally, so obviously there was a lot of thinking that I had to do having that opportunity to go play professionally after last season, but to me, I really value being an athlete at Illinois," Acton said. "I really value my degree.

"There was definitely interest (from MLB teams), but like I said, I made it pretty clear I needed a certain opportunity to pass on getting my degree after the year I had last year."

Acton, a finance major with interests in wealth management and investment banking, said none of the MLB clubs he talked to offered what it would have taken for him to forgo his senior year of college.

"I needed a little more (money) than that to go because I really value the finance degree I'm going to get from the Gies College of Business," Acton said. "To me, it was paramount to go back to school and get that degree so whenever they do tell me to hang up the cleats, I have that (degree) in my back pocket to lean on."

It was a different story for three of Acton's now former Illini teammates. Second baseman Michael Massey (Royals), shortstop Ben Troike (Rays) and right-handed pitcher Cyrillo Watson (Dodgers) all decided to leave a year early and sign with the franchises that drafted them.

Jack Yalowitz (Rockies), Quinten Sefcik (Reds), Zac Taylor (Cubs) and Andy Fisher (Reds) — all of whom had exhausted their eligibility after last season — also reached agreements with MLB teams, according to an athletic department release.

The decisions of Massey and Troike to turn pro were no real surprise, with Massey going in the fourth round (109th overall) to the Royals. Massey's slot value is $533,000. Troike, an 11th-round selection of Rays who missed the final 12 games of Illinois' season with a broken right thumb, said after he was drafted that he planned to weigh his pro prospects. He ultimately picked pro ball, well before the July 15 deadline.

"I am really excited to be back next year at Illinois," said Acton, who is back at home training to get ready for August when he'll report back on campus. "I absolutely love being in Champaign and I love being an Illini."

Acton might have some extra motivation entering his final season.

While he was dominant for most of season, his final two relief appearances likely left a sour taste in his mouth. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander was one strike away from eliminating Michigan from the Big Ten tournament on May 23.

Had the Wolverines lost that game, Michigan — one of the final four teams in the NCAA tournament field — might have been left at home for regional action. Now, a month later, the Wolverines are one win from reaching the championship series of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

"They've proven they belong on the national stage and everybody knew that when we were going in to play them," Acton said of Michigan. "They come and attack early in the count especially. They saw I wasn't getting my breaking ball over (in the 5-4 loss in May), and they did quite a bit of damage.

"Going 0-2 in the Big Ten tournament changed how things went in the postseason and hampered the momentum we had as team going in. I really put that on myself. My job is to put up zeroes and it's frustrating when you don't get that done."

Sports Copy Editor

Joe Vozzelli Jr. is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jvozzelli@news-gazette.com.