Illinois baseball splits opening weekend in North Carolina

By Adam Rosen, Staff Writer

Although the turn to spring weather may still seem far off, the return of baseball provides comforting evidence that spring is truly just around the corner. This past weekend, Illinois baseball stepped up to the plate in North Carolina for its first matchups of the 2023 season. The Illini played four games, two against the Youngstown State Penguins and two against the No. 6 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, spanning across three days.

With high hopes as the number-four ranked team in the Big Ten in preseason, the Illini gave themselves a test to begin their season. 

In the first of two matchups between the Penguins, the Illini jumped out to a 6-0 lead, headlined by the pitching of redshirt junior Riley Gowens. After a rocky start where he allowed the first three batters on base, Gowens got into an impressive grove sitting down 12 straight, a stretch which featured nine straight strikeouts. Gowens finished his season opener with 11 strikeouts. 

Unfortunately for the Illini, that lead evaporated in an instant, as the Penguins smacked in six runs during the sixth inning; however, the Illini never looked back after giving up the lead, taking it back in the bottom half of the inning with three runs of their own and cruising the rest of the way to a 9-6 win on opening day.

In the first of two games on Saturday, the Illini matched up again with the Penguins once again, trying to sweep the two-game set. Illinois was led by senior right fielder Cam McDonald with two hits as the Illini took both games against the Penguins, this time with a 10-5 final score. The pitching squad also showed out, as they racked up a combined 16 strikeouts to help in going 2-0 on the weekend.

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The second game on Saturday was not as kind to the Illini, as they now faced off against a highly ranked opponent in the Demon Deacons. Illinois took a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning, but the Demon Deacons responded with a run of their own in the second inning before notching seven more unanswered runs on the night. Wake Forest’s 8-1 victory was spearheaded by three home runs and a combined 20 strikeouts from its two pitchers. 

On Sunday, Illinois was looking to avenge its loss and end the weekend on a win when the first pitch was thrown at 12:31 p.m. local time, but it was much of the same story. McDonald showed some fight as he put the Illini on the board with an impressive opposite field home run in the top of the fourth, but that was all Illinois could muster while Wake Forest once again compiled a plethora of runs by slugging five home runs against Illinois’ pitching staff.

The Illini fell 10-1 in the second match up as they wrapped the first weekend of play up with a 2-2 record. 

Illinois baseball returns to play next weekend in Hattiesburg, Miss., to take on the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles won all three of their opening weekend matchups, and they will have one midweek more match before they host Illinois. 



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