Baseball eyes Regional before start of season

Jeremy Berg The Daily Illini Illinois Brandon Wikoff swings at a pitch during the Illinois game against Indiana State on March 26.

Jeremy Berg The Daily Illini Illinois’ Brandon Wikoff swings at a pitch during the Illinois game against Indiana State on March 26.

By Wes Anderson

Don’t let the brutal cold snap of late fool you. Believe it or not, the Illinois baseball team is just a month away from hitting the diamond – just not in icy Champaign.

After four months of offseason workouts following fall practices, the Illini begin their 2009 campaign in earnest on Feb. 20 in the more temperate climate of Clearwater, Fla. The Illini will take on Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge.

Last season, the Illini’s quest for a Big Ten title and NCAA Regional berth came up heartbreakingly short. The No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, Illinois faced top seed and tournament host Michigan in the second round. Despite holding a 2-1 lead in the seventh, Illinois gave up three runs in the inning and ultimately lost, 5-2.

A loss to Indiana the next day ended the Illini’s season in the double-elimination tournament. The Illini finished with a 31-25 record for the year.

“We did a great job battling,” head coach Dan Hartleb said after the losses. “We’re at the point where everyone in this program expects to get into the Big Ten Tournament. I think these guys wanted more than that.”

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In a sport dominated by schools that enjoy warm temperatures year-round, a College World Series berth would be a program-changing accomplishment for any school, let alone one buried under snow every January. The nation’s top recruits usually flock to the West Coast or South to play, leaving schools that host games on a seasonal basis at a disadvantage.

The Illini, for their part, have not made an NCAA Regional appearance since 2000.

To challenge for a postseason berth and Big Ten title, the Illini will need to fill some holes in their lineup, particularly in the outfield. Unquestionably, the Illini’s biggest loss following last season was center fielder Kyle Hudson. The speedy two-sport athlete was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles after his junior season and made limited appearances for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Orioles’ rookie league affiliate, in late 2008.

Illinois does have one position already solidified – shortstop. Returning starter Brandon Wikoff hit .369 last season, led the team in RBIs, stole 11 bases and posted the Big Ten’s top fielding percentage. The junior is among nine Big Ten players named to the watch list of the Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Award, awarded to the nation’s top collegiate player.

Senior Joe Bonadonna, an all-Big Ten second baseman, also returns to make up what should be among the conference’s strongest middle infields. Junior Kevin Manson, who established himself as arguably the team’s best starting pitcher last season, also returns for Illinois. After a tournament in Texas and a three-game series at LSU in Baton Rouge, La., the Illini will host Akron in their home opener at Illinois Field on March 13.