Weekend brings rematch 34 years in the making

By Erik Hall

This season, the Illinois baseball team is hoping to return to the success it enjoyed at the beginning of the 21st Century. However, Illinois’ opponent Saturday, Texas-Pan American, is looking further back and hoping to return to the success the Broncs had at the beginning of the 1970’s.

Texas-Pan American head baseball coach Willie Gawlik has a slogan for his team’s objective: “Recapture the Tradition.”

“We’re trying to get the program back to the days of glory,” Gawlik said. “This program was once a prominent team in the regionals. It fell off since 1986, the last time they were in the regional. We are trying to get the program back to where it used to be.”

The peak of the Texas-Pan American glory days came when the Broncs reached the 1971 College World Series. Gawlik was a senior left fielder on that team.

In the first round of the 1971 College World Series, UTPA played Southern Illinois. Current Illinois head baseball coach Itch Jones was Southern Illinois’ head baseball coach from 1970-1990.

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“They were just an outstanding ballclub. We were very fortunate to beat them,” Jones said.

Southern Illinois beat UTPA twice during the 1971 College World Series. The Salukis won 6-4 in the opening round and then 8-6 in the losers’ bracket. Southern Illinois went on to finish second that year to Southern California.

“They were well-coached and had a great ballclub,” Gawlik said of the 1971 Southern Illinois team.

Gawlik will get the chance Saturday to try to beat a coach he could not as a player. Illinois (2-1) plays Texas-Pan American (3-12) at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“Any time you beat Itch’s team it would be a good feeling,” Gawlik said. “It’s not a personal vendetta, but I really respect him and his teams. I’ve always respected him as a coach. He’s done a fantastic job as a coach, and he is a great a person.”

Illinois plays the first of three games in the Al Ogletree Classic on Friday against Texas-San Antonio (0-11) at 2 p.m. The Illini finish the weekend by playing Sam Houston State (6-4) at 10 a.m. Sunday.

Before the Illini play the Broncs on Saturday night, Al Ogletree will throw out the first pitch. Ogletree coached Texas-Pan American from 1969-1997.

“Al Ogletree, if you look at his record as a coach, was an outstanding coach and had great teams,” Jones said. “Al was a person that had a great baseball career. He was a good recruiter and a very honest person. He just brought in good talent for years into Pan American.

“I think it’s just wonderful that they named a tournament after him.”

This is Illinois’ second time playing in the Al Ogletree Classic. The Illini won the first Ogletree Classic in 2003.

The winner of this year’s Al Ogletree Classic will show which coach has his program closer to rejuvenation.

“This was a top-25 program, and it’s a tough road to get back there,” Gawlik said. “We are going down that road. We got a lot of pot holes to get through, but we are getting things back together.”

Weekend starters

Illinois is expected to start the same eight position players Friday that started Sunday’s game against Wagner. This is a change from the opening game line-up with sophomore Shawn Roof now starting at second base.

Illinois’ starting pitchers this weekend are scheduled to be senior Jimmy Conroy, redshirt junior Brian Blomquist and junior Andy Sigerich. As of Tuesday, it had not been determined which pitcher would start which game.