Team of the century: 2015 Illini baseball reign supreme

Pitcher+Tyler+Jay+follows+through+on+a+throw+as+Infielder+Ryne+Roper+readies+himself+for+the+play+during+the+match+against+Michigan+State+on+March+30%2C+2015.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Pitcher Tyler Jay follows through on a throw as Infielder Ryne Roper readies himself for the play during the match against Michigan State on March 30, 2015.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

The team of the century for Illinois baseball is undoubtedly the one that manned Illinois Field in 2015. With a dominant regular-season record of 50-10-1, this team gave Illinois its 30th Big Ten Baseball Championship, its 13th winning record since 2000 and arguably its best season in the program’s prosperous 141-year-history. Head coach Dan Hartleb, who took the reins of the team in 2006, says the 2015 team is the best he has seen play during his near 30-year coaching career at Illinois.

“It was a great group of individuals and a great group of players,” Hartleb said. “Regardless of whether it was practice or games, once those guys stepped on the field, it was 100% business.”

The Background

Work ethic is essential for a team to get better, but the one thing that set the table for success is the fact that all but three men on this team were also in an Illinois uniform in 2014. There was sheer talent that was carried over from an already successful 2014 season (32-21 overall) and key in propelling 2015 to an extraordinary level. That talent was recognized at a national level and following the season, a record nine players from Illinois were drafted in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft, including Tyler Jay who was taken number six overall by the Minnesota Twins. The team had power, run production, speed, starting pitching, relief pitching, but most importantly, this team also had chemistry.

You can have the most statistically sound team on paper, but if that team does not play well together, you are not going very far.  The 2015 Illini were awfully familiar with each other as the regulars in the rotation, bullpen and lineup were all Illinois veterans that knew each other on and off the field.

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“That 2015 team — the players, the coaches, the people around the program — we were all a huge family,” said Casey Fletcher who started 60 games in the outfield in 2015. “We all loved each other and loved coming to the ballpark every day. The combination of genuine love and the want to win was something special and probably separated us from other teams”

The camaraderie and leadership gave the team a unique looseness with each other that not only kept the tensions low, but also directed the focus forward to play at a high level after their season ended prematurely the year before when Michigan State prevailed over the Illini in the second round of the 2014 Big Ten Tournament.

The 2014 season gave the Illini a goal to go out and take things to the next level. They had something to prove and the goods to prove it with.

“I thought we got snipped a little bit in 2014 but we could see the writing on the wall that we were going be a good team in 2015,” said Fletcher. “We played with a chip on our shoulder.”

The Season

The 2015 season began with a six-game winning streak against non-conference opponents. The team was playing well, sitting 13 games above .500 by the end of March. However, things escalated when Illinois took the last contest in a three-game set against Michigan State on March 30. This game began a Big Ten record 27 game winning streak that solidified Illinois as a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten Conference. Five Illini hit over .300 during the streak, including first baseman David Kerian, catcher Jason Goldstein, outfielder Ryan Nagle, shortstop Adam Walton and Fletcher himself. This streak lasted through the end of the regular season, for a total of 52 days without a loss; cementing the Illini as the No. 6 national seed in the NCAA Baseball Championship and just the second Big Ten team in history to earn a national seed.

Illinois hosted their first-ever NCAA Regional at Illinois Field, going 3-0. They advanced to the Super Regional for the first time in program history where they were finally defeated by Vanderbilt, who went on to lose to Virginia in the College World Series.

To say this team was good is an understatement. The list of accolades is extensive, consisting of Big Ten Player of the Year (David Kerian), Big Ten Pitcher of the Year (Tyler Jay), and Coach Hartleb took home his first Big Ten Coach of the Year award.

“You have groups or people that when things don’t go well, they make excuses, and then you have groups that when things don’t go well, they look in the mirror and understand that ‘We didn’t get our jobs done, and we need to be better,’” said Hartleb about the team’s character. “I have great respect for the group, not only for what they did from a wins/loss standpoint and the recognition they brought the program, but them as people and how they conducted themselves that entire year and during their careers today. That group will always have a special place, not only in Illinois history but in my coaching career for the impact they had.”

The team was indeed better, and although they didn’t make it to the college baseball World Series, they went further than any other team in Illinois history. The chemistry that made that happen wasn’t just on the field or during the season; it continued after college, as the majority of the team lives in Chicago and still sees each other regularly.

Seasons like this are one-in-a-million in baseball, and this one is the highlight of an incredibly confident group that had that lightning-in-a-bottle edge to win ball games and provide Illinois with a season for the ages.

https://fightingillini.com/documents/2015/8/5//29_FINAL_NOTES.pdf?id=17367

@ebs_rich

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