Illini hope to build on 2007 success in ’08



By Jason Grodsky

The 2007 Illinois baseball team entered the season not really knowing what to expect. It was a young team with a small core of veteran players, but by the end of the season the Illini emerged as a team to watch for next few years to come.

The Illini finished the season with a 31-27 record (16-14 Big Ten) and began the year expected to play a lot of small ball and lacking a great deal of power. But by season’s end Illinois featured one of the top offenses in the Big Ten and one of the best power hitters and overall players in the nation.

After losing a great deal of power from its 2006 team, the Illini were in need of someone to step up and be a leader in its line-up. That void was quickly filled by junior catcher Lars Davis.

Davis became just the 21st player in Illinois history to finish a season with a .400 or better batting average, ending the season at exactly .400 after going 1-for-4 in Illinois’ final game of the 2007 season.

Nicknamed the “Canadian Crusher” by his teammates, Davis went on to led the Illini in hits (90), RBIs (56), runs (53), home runs (13), slugging percentage (.673) and on-base percentage (.473). Davis’ 13 home runs led the Big Ten and also led the Big Ten behind the plate, throwing out 24 would-be base stealers.

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His efforts on the field landed him the Big Ten Player of the Year Award, becoming just the seventh player in Illini history to earn the award.

“This was a bitter sweet season for us watching Lars,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “He really developed into a great overall player this year, both offensively and defensively. Unfortunately for us he probably did too well and we won’t have him back next year. He’s got a great future ahead of him.”

Despite having one year of eligibility left, Davis is expect to be drafted in early June in Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. If drafted Davis would become the second Canadian catcher from Illinois to be drafted in the last three years. Chris Robinson was drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Detroit Tigers.

Davis isn’t the only prospect to be drafted this year. Senior shortstop Shawn Roof and senior closer Jake Toohey are also poised to make the leap to the next level.

Both Roof and Toohey set school records this season to help Illinois finish fifth in the Big Ten and qualify for its third straight Big Ten Tournament.

Roof lit up the base paths this season, setting the school record in stolen bases in a season with 40 and also the school’s career record in hit by pitches with 45, including 22 times this season. The Paducah native finished his career with 65 stolen bases, 18 behind career leader Tom Schmitke.

While Roof was setting records on the bases, Toohey was setting his own from the mound. The senior closer ended the season with a team-best 3.63 ERA and seven saves. His seven saves all came in Big Ten games, tying the record for saves in a Big Ten season.

“We had a great group of seniors,” Hartleb said. “These guys have been awesome. They have gone out and played extremely hard and will leave a lasting impression on this program for a long time.”

Even though the Illini veterans were the backbone of the 2007 team, it was the youngsters that provided the spark for the Orange and Blue.

First year players Daniel Webb, Nick Stockwell and Brandon Wikoff were all regulars in the Illini line up. Webb, a junior college transfer, had a break out season for the Illini, hitting .332 with 37 RBIs to earn third team All-Big Ten.

Outfielder Kyle Hudson avoided the dreaded sophomore slump this season and built off his outstanding freshman campaign to hit .351. The two-sport athlete was tied for the team lead in triples with senior first baseman Mike Rohde at four and will be Illinois’ top returning hitter and base runner next season assuming Davis is drafted.

“We had a group of players who didn’t quit all year,” Hartleb said. “Our young guys never gave up and if they can keep that up and instill that trait in the program for the rest of their careers we’re going to be in very good shape.”

Illinois’ youth also shined on the mound this season. Of the nine pitchers to start a game for the Illini this season, only Toohey and senior Omar Kadir will be leaving. Sophomores Tanner Roark, Scott Shaw, Mike Stankiewicz and Aaron Martin made the bulk of the starts for the Illini this season, starting 43 of 57 games.

In his second season as an Illini starter, Roark established himself as the ace of the staff. The right-hander finished the season with an 8-2 record and set the Illinois record for wins in a Big Ten season with seven, earning him second-team All-Big Ten honors.

After taking over the role as Illinois’ Friday night starter in Big Ten play, Roark only lost one game, a 4-3 loss at Big Ten regular season champion Michigan. His 46 strikeouts were tied for the team high with Shaw and his complete game win against Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament gave Illinois its first postseason win since 2001.

“We got a lot of experience this year and got a lot of contributions from young guys this year.” Shaw said. “Hopefully over the summer our younger pitchers will go out and get better and develop more.”

As the Illini head into the off-season they will be left with the void of replacing five of its starting position players, including all of its starting infielders except third baseman Wikoff.

The departing players accounted for 227 of the Illini’s 408 runs scored and 210 of the team’s 360 RBIs.

“We’re going to be young next year, but I like the athletes we have in our program,” Hartleb said. “If we can have a good recruiting year or two together, I think we’ve got a chance to get the program really rolling.”