Baseball prepares for NCAA tourney as underdog

Two years ago, the Illinois baseball team traveled to Louisiana to take on No. 1 LSU. The Illini were heavy underdogs in the series but surprised many people by winning two out of three games against the Tigers, who would go on to win the College World Series that season.

Now Illinois will look to draw on that big-stage experience as they make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000.

“Going into this, we really do have nothing to lose. These teams are probably gonna take us lightly. No one expects a four seed to come out of a regional,” first baseman Matt Dittman said. “We did that when we went down to LSU two years ago, and there are still guys left from that team that know how to play against a high level team, so we’re gonna take that same approach this weekend.”

Illinois (28-25) will kick off their tournament on Friday night against Cal State Fullerton (40-15), the host and No. 1 seed in the region.

The Titans are one of the most successful baseball programs in the country, advancing to the NCAA tournament 33 times in their 37 years at the Division I level, including a streak of 20 straight appearances that ranks third-longest in the country.

The Illini have taken on the Titans four times previously with just one win. However, the most recent meeting was in 1992, meaning the teams are short on first-hand experience with each other.

“I know that Cal State Fullerton pitches and plays good defense,” center fielder Willie Argo said. “Hopefully it’ll be a close game, it’ll be anybody’s game in the end, and hopefully we can pull it off.”

Also facing off in Illinois’ region are No. 2-seed Stanford (32-20) and No. 3-seed Kansas State (36-23). Along with Illinois and Cal State Fullerton, the four teams will play a double-elimination tournament similar to last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. The champion will move on to NCAA Super Regionals beginning June 10.

Head coach Dan Hartleb said if the Illini want to keep their season going beyond this weekend, they must focus on themselves first and foremost.

“I think every regional is tough. You just need to go in and play well,” Hartleb said. “I really like our frame of mind, the way we’re playing. I think a four seed being matched up against a No. 1, I think it’s a good thing. You go in there, and you win your first game, and you’re in the driver’s seat.”

The Illini enter the postseason on their hottest streak of the year, winning 16 of their last 20 contests and playing well in nearly every aspect of the game. During their run to the Big Ten Tournament title, the Illini gave up just six runs in three games while scoring 18 of their own.

One of the hottest hitters on the team is designated hitter Justin Parr. The sophomore went 6-for-14 in the three games with three runs and two RBIs. Parr also led the Big Ten in hitting during conference play with a .411 average but was not recognized as an All-Big Ten selection.

While Parr said the snub is not something he thinks about, Hartleb said he thinks it served as motivation for the sophomore.

“I thought he deserved to be on one of the teams,” Hartleb said. “Whenever you hit at that level, it’s impressive. I was very disappointed that he was left off the All-Big Ten teams.”

It will take an entire team effort if the Illini want to advance to their first Super Regional, though, including one point that was mentioned by several players as being vital to their success: being aggressive.

“I love the way we’re playing aggressive,” Argo said. “I think that’s just the way we need to keep playing. Just keep being aggressive, keep playing confident and just have some swagger about the way we play and take care of business.”