Illinois prepares for trio of ranked foes at Frisco Classic

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

With a two-game winning streak and a 3-3 record under its belts, the Illinois baseball team will face three ranked teams in the Frisco Classic this weekend. The games will be played in Frisco, Texas, and will pit Illinois against No. 18 Texas A&M on Friday evening, No. 22 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, and the No. 10 ranked University of California Los Angeles on Sunday.  Head coach Dan Hartleb will send senior Ty Weber, sophomores Ty Rybarczyk, and Aidan Maldonado to the mound, hoping to keep the pattern of quality pitching rolling and turn in valuable innings.

“I think every time you play it’s an opportunity, I like playing good teams and teams that are ranked,”  Hartleb said. “It shows our young guys the level we can play at and get where we want to be, so I’m looking forward to this weekend, I love coaching in these types of games and I expect our guys to go out and find ways to win.”

There were encouraging signals from the last three games in South Carolina where the Illini took two games out of three. Although Illinois dropped the opener against Western Carolina, outstanding pitching was the team’s anchor all weekend. Weber turned in five innings and surrendered two unearned runs on Saturday; while the bullpen, including Junior Ryan Kutt’s bounce back two inning outing, locked down four scoreless while striking out as many. The offense also had their best day of the weekend Saturday after playing small ball to plate five runs while every starter in the lineup reached base at least once.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement, there’s no substitute for experience and the more at bats the guys get, the more knowledge they’ll have, and they’ll continue to grow,” Hartleb said. “We were much better in this past weekend in a lot of areas than we were in the first weekend.  I expect that kind of improvement again this weekend.”

The performance of the weekend was on Sunday, when freshman Cole Kirshsieper pounded the strike zone in his first collegiate start and hurled six innings while giving up just one earned run against West Virginia. The southpaw threw 80 pitches, 59 of them for strikes, while walking nobody. Kirshsieper will be in starting rotation talks as Hartleb and pitching coach Mark Allen continue to stretch out the entire pitching staff and give opportunities for newcomers to prove themselves.  The 19-year-old lefty will be available out of the bullpen on Sunday’s game against UCLA and said he didn’t feel pressure about the upcoming competition.

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“This is a big weekend for us going against some of the top teams in the country,” said Kirshsieper.  “I feel like there is no pressure on us whatsoever, we just go out there and do our thing.  The pitching staff has done excellent the past two weekends and we’re looking to keep that going.”

One swing of the bat was enough offense to take the win away from West Virginia starter Jake Carr, who tossed a complete game and took a tough loss. That swing resulted in a 106-mph laser off the red-hot bat of sophomore shortstop Brandon Comia, who currently leads the team with a .412 batting average and hit safely in each game in South Carolina.

“Everybody comes in and wants to play as a freshman and Brandon was able to do that and play at a high-level last year, and he’s doing a great job up to this point,” Hartleb said. “When everybody does their job, we’re in great shape and he’s done a great job which is make the routine plays and have quality at bats.  If he continues to do that, he’s got an opportunity to have a great year.”

The two-game winning streak will be on the line on Friday at 7 p.m. when Illinois battles powerhouse Texas A&M, which hasn’t had a losing baseball record since 2006.

“We’ve all thought about it, and as a team we’ve talked about it, but I think we just want to prove we can hang with the best,” Comia said. “I believe whole- heartedly we are one of the best teams in the country and I think we deserve to be in that top 25 so this weekend would be really big to go and show other people that.”

Last year, the Aggies finished fourth place in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference and had an overall record of 39-23-1. They’ll send junior Asa Lacy to the mound to battle Weber. Lacy will be the most challenging pitcher the Illini have faced this season, as he’s expected to be a top-10 draft pick in the spring and throws a mid- 90s fastball. Since February 14, the Aggies won their first eight games, including a video game reminiscent 30-2 onslaught against Prairie View A&M.  The Texas A&M Aggies play two more against Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word before facing Illinois.

Oklahoma State stands at 5-2 while UCLA is also undefeated at 7-0.  The Illini will face those teams at 2 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday, respectively. There will be a quick turnaround next week as the Illini are currently scheduled to make their home debut against the Chicago State Cougars on Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock.

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