Eight men in: baseball signs premiere players

By Courtney Linehan

First-year Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb signed eight players in his premier class on Wednesday, picking up three pitchers, two catchers and a strong set of fielders. Hartleb said the Illini inked some of the state’s best players, athletes he hopes will keep the team at the top of the Big Ten and lead to post-season appearances in the future.

“We feel like we were able to recruit strong student-athletes to fill our needs,” Hartleb said in a press release. “We were able to bring in quality people who have leadership skills as well as great athletic ability.”

The signing class includes:

n Blake Fairchild: A left-handed pitcher from Mattoon, Ill., who was a unanimous All-Big 12 player in 2005. Fairchild allowed only .161 hitting against him in 2005 and struck out 79 batters. His fastball reaches the low-90 mph range.

n Michael Giller: An infielder/catcher from St. Patrick High School in Chicago. Giller hit .512 in East Suburban Catholic play in 2005 and averaged a home run in every 10 at-bats.

n Craig Lutes: An outfielder from Normal, Ill., who led Normal to a state tournament appearance in 2004 and was a unanimous All-Big 12 selection in 2005. Lutes was a four-year letter winner in baseball and football, and earned three varsity letters in basketball.

n Kevin Manson: A right-handed pitcher from Maine South High School. Manson threw 57 strikeouts with a 3.29 ERA in 2005. Hartleb said Manson has a “very projectable pitcher’s body at 6-foot-7.”

n Joe Mercurio: A catcher from Brewster, N.Y. Mercurio was one of Baseball America’s Top 300 players, and batted .403 with 19 RBIs in 2004. His grandfather signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but did not play because of World War II.

n Daniel Webb: An outfielder from Anna, Ill. Webb currently plays for John A. Logan College and will have two seasons of eligibility with the Illini. He led Anna-Jonesboro High School to a fourth-place finish at state in 2002. Illinois assistant coach Eric Snider said Webb will bring leadership and is “a perfect fit for our program,” and will likely be a middle-of-the-order hitter.

n Brandon Wikoff: An infielder from Peoria, Ill. Wikoff pitched for Limestone High School, but it’s his batting ability that caught Illinois’ eye. He hit .464 in 2005 with 44 runs, 15 RBIs and 15 doubles.

n Lee Zerrusen: A right-handed pitcher from Teutopolis, Ill. Zerrusen led his team to a third-place finish in the 2005 IHSA tournament, where he played against current Illini Tanner Roark. He struck out 51 and walked nine in 45 1/3 innings during the season.