Illini baseball faces tough, varied schedule in pursuit of NCAA tournament birth

By Nicholas Fortin

The road to a second straight NCAA tournament berth for the Illinois baseball team will be challenging to say the least.

Standing between the Illini and another appearance in the tournament is a schedule as daunting as it is diverse. Illinois will play four teams — Coastal Carolina, Wichita State, Florida and Indiana — that made it to the 2013 NCAA tournament in addition to a number of games against other high-caliber teams from both the Big Ten and beyond.

“It’s going to be challenging, but that’s the way we want it,” junior pitcher John Kravetz said. “A tough schedule gets us ready for the Big Ten season and it helps with RPI. It’s the same thing with last year. Probably a little tougher this year, but last year we went to Baylor and got the sweep and that helped us down the road in May when the selection show came around. Hopefully that same thing happens this year with Coastal Carolina, Florida, Georgia State. They’re quality teams, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

In addition to the top-notch competition on the field, the Illini’s string of road games to start the year may be another schedule-induced obstacle. 

Illinois will spend the first five weeks of the season on the road in four different states, playing three series and two tournaments against teams such as Wichita State, Coastal Carolina and Florida, all tournament teams from a year ago.

“We always start off early in the year traveling to these different places to play, which is cool to get away from home and be on the road and all that,” junior infielder Reid Roper said. “But we know its not vacation, it’s a business trip. We go down there to win. That’s our mind set now, to go down there and win.”

Although the nonconference schedule may look extremely rigorous, it hasn’t dulled the excitement the Illini have in their team for the upcoming season.

“It excites the team,” Kravetz said about the Illini playing good teams on the road. “We have all the confidence in ourselves. We might be over-confident. We feel good about what we’re doing. We want to play the Florida’s and whoever else. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

After spending the first four weekends of the season in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky, the Illini will get a bit of travel break as the team will face Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill., before beginning Big Ten play.

Despite the fact that Illinois opens the season with a nonconference schedule that includes multiple teams currently receiving NCAA votes, the hardest block of games for the Illini may come in the middle of conference play.

Illinois will play eight Big Ten teams in the conference season. But the Illini will have possibly their biggest test of the season in late April, as they will host No. 7 Indiana for a three-game series from April 25-27.

Illinois will also play Nebraska, a team that is currently receiving votes in the NCAA rankings, to end the regular season.

With its combination of tough nonconference and potentially even tougher conference schedule, Illinois will need to perform well throughout the year to have a chance of success. Head coach Dan Hartleb said although the schedule is tough, he expects his team not only to be up to the challenge but to rise above it.

“I think it’s a very good schedule,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “I’m excited about it. We’ll have to play at a high level to win games. It’s something we’ll need to do to get at-large bids in the regional. It’s something that I expect our players to handle. I think we’re getting to a point where people look at us on their schedule and say, ‘You know what, that’s a tough opponent and we’ve got to strap it on and play well.’ If I didn’t think we could handle it, I don’t think I’d schedule it.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.