Expectations compound for Illinois baseball’s 2023 season

Senior+infielder%2Foutfielder+Cam+McDonald+follows+through+on+a+swing+during+a+game+against+Northwestern+on+April+16%2C+2022.+During+last+season%2C+McDonald+set+the+record+for+most+consecutive+games+on+base.

Photo courtesy of Andy Wenstrand / Illinois Athletics

Senior infielder/outfielder Cam McDonald follows through on a swing during a game against Northwestern on April 16, 2022. During last season, McDonald set the record for most consecutive games on base.

By Adam Rosen, Staff Writer

As spring is coming around the corner, the turf saturated with rain and shine, it’s time for Illinois baseball to throw heaters and hit dingers. The Illini have much more time to get into the bullpen and do some batting cage work with their brand-new training facility, which opened in October.

The team will begin the 2023 season on Feb. 17 as they embark on a southern tour with stops in North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and South Carolina. Head coach Dan Hartleb is entering his 33rd season with Illinois baseball and 18th as head coach of the program.

In November, Hartleb was rewarded a four-year contract extension that runs through 2027. Hartleb spoke about how “blessed” he is to be at Illinois.

“The administration has done a great job of supporting myself and my family personally,” Hartleb said. “(I) just am very fortunate to continue on with my career. We have enjoyed our team here, and we are so passionate about the program and the athletic department.”

Hartleb is the second-winningest coach in the history of Illinois baseball, earning his 500th win during the 2022 campaign, and just 12 more wins will put him at the top of the record books. During Hartleb’s career with the Illini, the team has experienced historic success, especially in the last decade with a win percentage of 61%.

The 2023 team possesses a mixture of both youth and veteran presence, as it is bringing in multiple new faces during the offseason to combine with some returning players.

One of the key returners is senior infielder/outfielder Cam McDonald, who has provided constant offensive firepower in his time with the team. Last season, McDonald set the program record for most consecutive games getting on base in his 58th-straight appearance.

“When I started getting close to the on-base record that weekend against Nebraska, it was getting to me throughout the week,” McDonald said. “I meet every week with Jim Maurer, our sports psychologist, and he got me to come back down.”

McDonald is one of nearly two dozen returning players for the Illini along with several additions via the transfer portal and the incoming freshman class. For McDonald, coming back for another year was a lot about building a legacy in Champaign.

“The biggest reason I stayed is the guys, and I love the coaches,” McDonald said. “I love being here, and I want to win here. I want to leave my mark here, and (I) want to leave the program better than we found it.”

McDonald was top three in almost every offensive statistic for the Illini last season, finishing with a slash line of .363/.561/.413 in 212 at-bats. McDonald smacked seven home runs to go along with 59 runs batted in.

One of the many newcomers to the team, graduate student right-handed pitcher TJ Constertina was excited to get to Illinois and begin working for the team he supported as a kid.

“I have been a fan (of Illinois) since I was a little kid. It is a dream come true to be here. My dad went here, and my brother goes here now,” Constertina said. “Out of high school, I did not really have any attention from bigger schools, so once I got offered from Illinois, I was thrilled to have that opportunity to represent my home state.”

Constertina grew up in Arlington Heights, Ill., and attended Buffalo Grove High School with fellow graduate transfer John Lundgren. Constertina spoke about getting the chance to play with his former high school teammate.

“I knew John from a pretty young age,” Constertina said. “We played high school baseball together, and I am thrilled to be playing with him again this year.”

Constertina previously pitched as a reliever for the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and he believes he will fit in well with the Illini in a similar role. Constertina finished with a 1.19 earned run average in 22.2 innings for the Tommies last season.

Looking back on the 2022 season, the Illini finished 31-22 overall with a 17-7 record in conference play. However, the team struggled when not at home, with a 12-10 record on the road and 3-8 on neutral ground. The team was the fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament before bowing out after losing both games.

2023 looks to be another year of success for the Illini. With one of the winningest coaches in the nation and a roster compiled of a balanced youth and veteran presence, the Illini have much to look forward to on the diamond.

 

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