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Illinois club baseball looking to make postseason run

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Illinois club baseball looking to make postseason run

The Illini club baseball team takes a group picture. The program finished with a 20-2 regular season record and hopes to make a deep postseason run.

The Illini club baseball team takes a group picture. The program finished with a 20-2 regular season record and hopes to make a deep postseason run.

The Illini club baseball team takes a group picture. The program finished with a 20-2 regular season record and hopes to make a deep postseason run.

The Illini club baseball team takes a group picture. The program finished with a 20-2 regular season record and hopes to make a deep postseason run.

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

Payton Lykins won’t be at his college graduation.

It’s not because he failed a class or for any academic purpose. It’s because he’ll be in Battle Creek, Michigan, with the Illinois club baseball team playing for an NCBA Regional title.

After going 20-2 and winning the Great Lakes South Conference title with a record of 11-1, Illinois will face Michigan State, then play the loser or winner of Wisconsin and Michigan in a double elimination tournament.

While the four schools vie for a lone bid to the NCBA World Series in Holly Springs, North Carolina, the University will be having its Commencement without Lykins and four other seniors on the team.

Instead, the seniors will have their own graduation ceremony on the field. The team hopes it’ll be joined for Commencement by a regional championship trophy. After all, the team took home the trophy two years ago and was one win short of making it happen again last season.

“When I was coming up in my earlier years, it took me by surprise, seeing all these seniors skip graduation for the regional,” Lykins said. “From an outside perspective, it’s like, you want to celebrate graduating college; for most people, that’s one of the biggest accomplishments of your life. I think that speaks to how close we are with each other as a team and how much we care about playing the game.”

The team is not competing on the same stage as the University’s varsity program, but those on the team note that the Division I club level still demands a competitive edge and effort to be successful.

Led by player-coach Grant Miller, a junior who also plays catcher, the Illini practice multiple times a week at Urbana High School’s baseball field, where they also host their home games.

The club has two teams, Division I and Division II. Each team practices throughout the fall and spring semesters and play schedules which sees them travel throughout the Midwest and to Florida during the University’s spring break. During the cold months of the year, the teams practice late at night in the Irwin Indoor Football Facility.

For Miller, the club program has been an opportunity to play baseball at a competitive level, but still have the time to take his education seriously. It’s also been an outlet for him to make lasting friendships and connections. He said the team has become a group of people he can rely on and have fun with, too.

Traditionally, the Illinois club team has been successful. In Miller’s freshman season, the Illini made the NCBA World Series and last season they almost did it again, but fell in the regional final.

This season, Illinois won its conference after picking up series wins against Purdue, Notre Dame, Illinois State and Ball State. Indiana is also in the Great Lakes South, but the two clubs’ late March series was canceled due to poor weather.

Miller credits the strong tradition of the program with being able to draw from the talented pool of high school baseball in Illinois. Though the top talents go to Division I schools and some filter down through the Division II and Division III levels, a fairly large number of talented baseball players choose to come to Illinois for their academics and for the big-school college experience.

“There are really good players who end up just coming here because they grew up in Illinois and it’s their state school, which gives us an advantage,” Miller said. “It’s hard when you go to a smaller school like Ball State, where they don’t get as many kids, but it does fluctuate.”

Lykins, who has been on the team since transferring to Illinois his sophomore year, thinks the club allows for the right amount of balance between competition and time consumption.

“We all started playing when we were pretty young and it’s a game we love,” Lykins said. “It’s an opportunity to do it at a competitive level still without the commitment that a varsity sport would give you.”

Miller and his teammates are eager for the action in Battle Creek and hope they can do what Miller’s freshman year team did and get back to the World Series.

“Being able to go to North Carolina and compete for a club baseball national championship, while to some people it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a club sport; it’s not the real thing, who cares?’ For us, it’s the highest level we can get to,” Miller said. “It’s the biggest stage we can play on. We treat it as such; we want to do as well as we can.”

Though he’s a junior this year, Miller knows the tradition of graduation at regionals and wants to see it through for his older teammates and for himself next year.

To ensure a happy graduation for their five seniors, Illinois will have to beat the likes of No. 1 seed Wisconsin, who went undefeated in the Great Lakes North Conference, as well as Michigan State and Michigan.

“My mom knows I won’t be at my graduation,” Miller said. “She’s like, ‘You’re doing what you love; I know there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.’ It comes with what this program means to people on the team. On the outside, it’s a club sport, but on the inside, we’re playing the game we love at the highest level for us.”

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