Illini baseball preps for new challenges

Catcher Jake Matthis, left, and third baseman Dominic Altobelli, right, practice batting at Illinois Field on Tuesday. Erica Magda

Catcher Jake Matthis, left, and third baseman Dominic Altobelli, right, practice batting at Illinois Field on Tuesday. Erica Magda

By Adam Harris

With the inaugural Big Ten/Big East Challenge set to open the season for Illinois baseball, a wave of excitement has spread throughout the program.

Players are pumped to take on their Big East counterparts and realize they need to start their season strong.

“We just want to get some wins under our belt,” junior right fielder Nick Stockwell said. “Granted it is the Big East so maybe a little more is riding on it, but we just want to get started on the right foot no matter who we play.”

The lure of the playing in such a high profile, inter-conference event makes the first game of the season that much more enticing, though the players are careful to keep a level head.

“A game is a game,” Stockwell enforced. “We just got to go out there and do what we have been working on. We are starting now and getting the basics down, but once that season starts it’s full throttle for 56 games. We cannot let who we play effect how we play.”

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    The Illini struggled to get off to a good start last season, finishing 2-7 on their opening nine game road trip.

    Despite that, Illinois knows a challenge at the beginning of the year can only make the team better in the long run.

    “It’s always good news when you’re playing a conference like the Big East,” said Stockwell. “They always have a few powerhouses in their conference, such as Notre Dame. When you face competition like that it’s only going to make your team better.”

    The Illini will face Notre Dame and West Virginia on Feb. 21 and 22, respectively. However, the Orange and Blue kick off the Challenge and their season against Big Ten foe Iowa on Feb. 20.

    “It will be weird to open up against a Big Ten team,” junior starting pitcher Mike Stankiewicz explained. “We haven’t played them (since the 2007 season), so it will be interesting.”

    All 10 Big Ten teams and eight Big East teams will participate in the Challenge in St. Petersburg, Fla., on fields normally used for MLB Spring Training games. Early season trips down South are normal for the Illini, but no matter how many trips the team takes, it never gets old.

    “Those trips are when it gets really exciting,” said junior second baseman Joe Bonadonna. “When going to Florida and Texas, you have to be able to focus on baseball, but you also have to enjoy yourself.”

    This is something Bonadonna said young players struggle to comprehend.

    “A lot of the new guys will realize that this will be a business trip for us as a team, but also you have to stay loose and be able to enjoy the elements of everything.”

    There is, however, another reason the Big Ten/Big East Challenge is important.

    “We really haven’t played many Big East games in the past, and now we’ll get a chance and we’ll take this a little like the basketball team gets to do with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge,” Bonadonna said. “Just like that, we are going to go out and play conference against conference and be able to showcase our talents.”