Relish this rare opportunity for Illini baseball

By Alex Roux

Illinois baseball kind of sneaks up on you every year.

Not the team; the season itself. It will begin in some warm-weather state, like Texas, Florida, or Georgia, where the weather is suitable for baseball while Midwesterners are still in the middle of a February freeze.

By the time the Illini even get the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd in mid-March, they’ve usually already played at least a dozen games. With the Major League season still a couple of weeks away, it’s always surprising to see that baseball is already being played in Illinois.

This year’s ultra-successful Illini squad probably snuck up on the fan base in a similar fashion. Sure, attentive fans and those who paid attention last year could tell that the spoil of riches returning to the pitching staff combined with a competent offense might make for a special 2015 season. But to casual fans, these nationally-ranked Illini probably came as more of a pleasant surprise.

Illinois baseball has had some good years in the past under former manager Itch Jones and now Dan Hartleb, but the success wasn’t usually enough to register on the national radar. The Big Ten’s reputation as a weak baseball conference didn’t give the Illini too many chances to impress, either. Illinois baseball was (and still probably is) considered a mid-major in the world of NCAA baseball.

Spring weekends at Illinois Field made for great family outings and were a chance for area residents to catch some pretty good baseball without driving to Chicago or St. Louis. But national eyes glazed over the action, and you couldn’t blame them. The Big Ten was almost guaranteed to provide little baseball of consequence. When Indiana made the College World Series in 2013, they were the first conference team to do so since Michigan in 1984.

Thanks to Illinois manager Dan Hartleb and his group of home-grown, talented, and likable players, things have changed. Big-time baseball is being played in Champaign, headlined by the NCAA regionals going on at Illinois Field.

And this is big-time. It’s unprecedented. Illinois has never hosted an NCAA regional in baseball, which is a privilege earned by the top eight teams in the country each year. So while the path to Omaha’s College World Series runs through Champaign, and the opportunity to make some serious national noise is right in front of them, it’s important to sit back and take stock of what this team has been able to accomplish.

The Illini have already put together an incredible season, with the 27-game winning streak and the Big Ten championship and the eye-popping pitching statistics. They’ve gripped even the disengaged corners of the Illinois fan base, and they’ve done it in a year when football and men’s basketball were middle-of-the-pack at best.

At the time, everyone knew 2005 was probably the best chance for the Illinois basketball team to make a run for it all, especially with the road to the championship laid out so favorably. 2015 Illinois baseball is in a similar spot. Guys like Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay will be in Major League organizations at this time next year, and it would be hard for future teams to match this year’s run of success.

So this is it – the home stretch. Take it in, Illini fans, and enjoy it.

It’s been a fun ride, and it’s not over yet.

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Alex is a senior in AHS 

@aroux94