Mark Allen reflects on year one with Illini

Illinois+pitching+coach+Mark+Allen+poses+for+a+professional+headshot+on+Oct.+8%2C+2019.+Allen+joined+the+team+one+year+ago.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Illinois pitching coach Mark Allen poses for a professional headshot on Oct. 8, 2019. Allen joined the team one year ago.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

Illinois pitching coach Mark Allen was hired one year ago and has already made an impact as the team looks to bring a Big Ten championship back to Champaign.

Allen came aboard last October following the departure of former pitching coach Drew Dickinson, who held the position for eight seasons. The program needed someone to fill those shoes and lead the pitching staff into a new phase, which Mark Allen has done despite a volatile year.

“When we found out Drew was leaving, the pitching staff was a little down,” said starting pitcher Cole Kirsheiper. “Coach Hartleb sat us down and said he would move quickly but make a choice to fit the group. I feel like it all started with bringing Mark in. Mark has a personality that just grows on you. We could tell when he first walked in that he was going to be fun. Us pitchers as a group formed a bond.”

Before joining the Illini, Allen served as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants. There, he oversaw the pitching development of nearly a hundred pitchers throughout the organization, from the training academy in the Dominican Republic to the Giants Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento.

In addition to his work with the Giants, Allen also spent eight seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization where he contributed in a number of different ways through scouting, cross-checking, pitching development before eventually earning the assistant pitching coordinator job. Allen was also with the Indians when they won the American League pennant in 2016.

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When asked about the decision to come to Champaign, Allen said he came across Illinois many times in his cross-checking days, and he was drawn to the humble yet hardworking environment that has made the team competitive on a consistent basis.

Allen graduated from St. Gregory’s University in 1999 with a degree in Health and Wellness and immediately pursued a career in coaching. Throughout the 2000s, Allen worked as an assistant coach at a number of universities, most notably North Central College (2004-2008) and Seminole State College (2008-2010).

During the months of quarantine in the spring, weekly Zoom meetings and regular communication over text were how Allen and the rest of the coaching staff kept the team sharp while they lifted and practiced on their own. Allen said the pandemic posed some challenges, but at the same time thinks being under quarantine was an opportunity for the players to fine-tune their skills and tweak their game on their own.

“It also made them hungry for baseball and allowed them to learn about themselves and hone their craft on their own for a while,” Allen said about the summer. “Self-growth is just as important as team growth. I think our guys made the most of their time.”

Two of Illinois’s top pitchers, Ty Weber and Garrett Acton have moved on through free-agent contracts with the Giants and Athletics respectively, leaving the Illinois staff and Mark Allen in a position to develop new players to step into those roles.

“We have some guys that were injured last year that have come back now and are in good spots,” Allen said about his pitchers. “You always hope that you have guys that will fill those shoes or step into those roles whatever they may be, and I feel pretty confident about this group that we have right now. I like the growth and the maturity that has taken place in these guys just since last year when I got here. It’s been a short turnaround, but we’ve noticed quite a bit of improvement and maturity.

“We’ve lost some guys, yes, but I think we’re in a good spot now where we’ll have some guys who will be able to earn those same stripes.”

Last season, now sophomore Cole Kirsheiper sported an impressive 1.35 era over his four appearances and will likely be at the forefront of the starting rotation alongside Ty Rybarczyk and Aidan Maldonado, who are looking for bounce-back seasons. Coach Hartleb is confident Allen will get these players in shape to perform and win consistently.

“He’s got an intensity and toughness to him that is infectious that I really like because you need to have a certain mentality to compete at a high level,” said coach Hartleb. “He wants zero focus put on him, it’s about the players, their progress and the things he can do to help them. He’s an impressive coach, an impressive human being; he’s the complete package and I’m excited he’s a part of our program. He has a good feel for pitching and the development process. All those things put together, he’ll have pitchers prepared to help us win.”

Coach Allen says the only thing he regrets about his first year at Illinois is the fact that the team was unable to finish the 2020 season. The Illini will undoubtedly be hungry to prove they’re top contenders for the Big Ten Championship, and Mark Allen has plenty of fresh pitchers as well as the skills to get the rotation and bullpen functional for a tournament run.

@ebs_rich

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