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No. 24 Illinois set for home opener against Milwaukee

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No. 24 Illinois set for home opener against Milwaukee

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

Ben Troike broke new ground last weekend.

The sophomore stepped up to the plate, waited for the right pitch and then belted one over the left field fence.

It was his first collegiate home run.

When he was making his way around the bases, his eyes met third base and hitting coach Adam Christ’s, who had a bright smile that stretched across his face.

“Off the bat, I took off out of the box, I was just running hard and I heard the dugout yell,” Troike said. “I looked up and it was over the fence. I was kind of shocked. I looked down to third base and coach Christ had a big smile on his face and he was laughing.”

Troike’s blast was indicative of the weekend for Illinois, as the team scored 29 runs in its first two games against Michigan State (a 15-4 win) and Furman (a 14-5 victory).

Though the Illini dropped the back end of a doubleheader on Saturday, falling to the Spartans 4-2, head coach Dan Hartleb was happy with his team’s performance and hopes it can carry it into the home opener against Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Originally, the game was scheduled for Tuesday, but freezing temperatures with an occasional flurry and bitter winds pushed the game back.

Though Wednesday’s forecast doesn’t call for much warmer temperatures, the game will be played around the peak of the day’s warmth at 3:00 p.m. It’s supposed to be around 43 degrees at that time.

Temperature is of no concern to head coach Dan Hartleb, however. The Illini baseball team has seen cold home openers in his 13-year coaching tenure at Illinois, and this one will be no different.

“(Milwaukee has) to deal with the same elements we do,” Hartleb said. “I expect our guys to go out and perform at a high level. We’re out here practicing today because we want to play in this type of weather; we just have to be prepared.”

Compared to some of the opponents the Illini have taken on so far in the young season, the Panthers (4-10) have struggled. The team has lost five of its last seven games, only earning two wins in the month of March. Although, they did win their last game at UAB 4-2 on Saturday.

Hartleb said he expects to keep the same lineup from the weekend and that right-handed Cyrillic Watson (0-1) will take the mound for the Illini. The sophomore has given up an average of 4.05 earned runs in 6 and 2/3 innings pitched so far in his two appearances against Austin Peay and VCU.

The Panthers are expected to start lefty Alex Fischer, who is 1-1 on the year with an ERA of 5.40.

Illinois, which has won seven of its last eight games, is looking forward to getting out in front of its home fans — though the early start may impact what could otherwise be a high-attendance affair.

“We can’t wait; every year it’s the first four weeks on the road,” Troike said. “Finally, we get to play at home in front of the home fans; we’re just excited to get rolling here.”

Hartleb is glad the team has time to settle down a bit in Champaign after weeks of traveling.

“It’s nice being able to sleep in our own beds, come out here, get in our routine and have some home fans,” Hartleb said.

Despite the midweek contest, not having to travel outside Champaign leaves the players with more time to focus on academics and organize themselves mentally.

After taking on the Panthers, the Illini will make the three-hour trip south to Carbondale for their first true series of the year against in-state foe Southern Illinois.

The Salukis started slow, but broke off on a five-game win streak to get back to .500. On Tuesday, they lost 9-8 at Arkansas State in 11 innings, dipping to 8-9 on the season.

Hartleb is expecting a tough series, though, especially now, with Illinois ranked in multiple polls — the team moved into Baseball America’s top 25, currently sitting at No. 24, and maintains its No. 25 position in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s rankings.

“We’ve got a target on us right now, so we’re going to have to go out and be better than we were a week ago,” Hartleb said. “I look for very competitive games; we have to handle each pitch and each inning as if it’s our last.”

The approach to the weekend will be much the same as it has been for each road trip so far this season. The team will focus on picking the right pitches to go after when at the plate and staying poised defensively.

Hartleb also stressed that though the starting pitching has been generally good lately, he is always looking for guys to prove to him that they can be consistent.

“There’s a few things, looking back at different games, that you’d like to change a little bit, but if you would have told me going into the season that we’d be 8-4 at this point against the teams we’re playing, I would’ve taken it,” Hartleb said. “We’ve done a really good job; I’m really pleased with our progress.”

A priority for Hartleb has been making sure his team is able to handle its success well. He doesn’t want his players getting swelled heads or expecting to win because of the team’s ranked status. 

Hartleb believes there are always areas of the game to work on, regardless of the new attention coming Illinois’ way.

“We’ve done a lot of things well; we’re getting national recognition,” Hartleb said. “A lot of those things are nice, but we still have to play well. We have to handle all the media attention and we have a lot of the season left. There is a lot ahead of us and we need to continue to improve.”

However, playing with a sense of self-assurance isn’t a bad thing, and Illinois is well aware of that. Troike wants his teammates to come out with the same attitude and mindset they’ve had all season long.

It’s worked fairly well so far, as the Illini have beaten the national champions from 2012 (Arizona), 2013 (No. 11 UCLA) and 2016 (Coastal Carolina).

“We’re hot right now,” Troike said. “We’ve just got to stick to what we believe in, play with that same confidence and swagger that we’ve had for the first twelve games of the season.”

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