Travel is just part of the game for Illinois baseball

By Michal Dwojak, Assistant sports editor

Packing a suitcase might not be a highlight of traveling for most people, but when the destination is warm and sunny, the task becomes bearable.

For Illinois baseball’s senior second baseman Reid Roper and senior pitcher Drasen Johnson, getting out of the frozen Midwest makes packing a larger bag worth it.

“We’ve been in (the Irwin Indoor practice facility) for the past month,” Johnson said. “To finally to go outside and play in the 70-degree weather, it’s pretty exciting.”

Because of the harsh winter, many northern teams spend the weekends of their first month of the season in southern cities. From Fort Myers, Fla., to Long Beach, Calif., college baseball teams begin the baseball season while the ice slowly starts to melt back home.

Illinois hosts Chicago State at Illinois Field in its home opener on March 10. Prior to that, the Illini will have visited Beaumont, Texas, Fort Myers, Fla., Myrtle Beach, S.C., twice and Stillwater, Okla. The team also traveled to the Dominican Republic during the fall.

Head coach Dan Hartleb and his team don’t use travel as an excuse — every northern team has to prepare for it. In recent years, Hartleb said travel hasn’t factored into his team’s mindset when the time came to play live ball.

While traveling to different regions of the nation, Illinois competes against unfamiliar faces. A majority of the Illini are familiar with other Big Ten players from playing on the same travel baseball teams and summer leagues around the Midwest. But when playing teams from Florida, Texas and South Carolina, names and faces are foreign.

Illinois didn’t watch film before its weekend in Texas and won’t watch film heading into its upcoming weekend in Fort Myers. The unfamiliarity might seem like a problem, but the Illini view it as part of playing away from home for the first month of the season.

“You travel and play teams that you never even know any of the players,” Roper said. “There’s a lot of that at the beginning of the season. I think it’s fun to play teams like that.”

The road trips also give the players more time with each other. With game days and travel days, the Illini learn more about each other and the cities they visit, buying a few souvenirs along the way.

During the trip to Texas, senior first baseman David Kerian and senior outfielder Will Krug modeled cowboy hats in a picture posted on the team’s Twitter account. Krug ended up buying the hat and a cowboy-style winter jacket that he admitted he couldn’t let anyone outside of the airport see him wear.

“When you’re dealing with 20-plus crazy guys, everyone’s different in their own way,” Krug said. “We’re always having a good time, keeping each other loose, smiling.”

Illinois will continue to pack its bags and head to the airport for the rest of the month, picking up more souvenirs on the way. The trips are fun and there are memories to be made, but first and foremost, they are business trips that the team hopes lead it to a final road trip at the end of the season.

That trip would be to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.

Michal can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @mdwojak94.