Illinois anticipates winning weekend at Minnesota
March 12, 2021
Heading into opening weekend, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb didn’t feel his team had a good week in practice. Hartleb expected more focus and intensity out of his Illini squad, as they prepared to play one of the conference’s top teams in Ohio State. It was evident, as Illinois failed to play a complete game until Sunday when it pitched a shutout for the first win of the season.
After an off day Monday, the Illini got back to work, hopeful of building off their 1-3 start at Minnesota this weekend. After just one day of practice on Tuesday, Hartleb felt the energy was much improved and the team was practicing with good intent, something catcher Ryan Hampe backed up after their second practice of the week.
“It’s honestly good for us to start out right away and learn what we’re missing, what mistakes we make and then we came back, practiced it and went over it this week,” Hampe said. “And now, we can grow off that and play other teams that will be just as good and make those changes and hopefully come out on top.”
Hampe made his first start for Illinois in South Carolina, catching his former John A. Logan College teammate, and current roommate, Andrew Hoffman, who also made his first start as an Illini. The pair had a strong outing together on Friday, but the Illini ultimately dropped game one.
Hoffman once again earned the Friday night start against the Golden Gophers, with Hampe most likely behind the plate. For the Illini to come up with more wins this weekend, Hampe said the team needs to never be complacent.
“The biggest thing is coming out right away and fighting right off the bat,” Hampe said. “Last weekend we came out fighting, but we got content once we got up; we just stayed a little content. We need to keep pushing and not give in and not just be like, ‘oh, we’re up, so I think we’ll be alright.’ We need to keep pushing and keep fighting against the other team.”
While Minnesota also started its season off with a 1-3 weekend, including two losses against Indiana, Illinois will need to be more disciplined on the mound to win the four-game series.
The same four starters will appear on the mound for Illinois this weekend — Hoffman, Riley Gowens, Ty Rybarczyk and Cole Kirschseiper. While Rybarczyk and Kirschsieper both made starts for Illinois last season, Gowens appeared on the mound for the first time in his three-year Illinois career.
Gowens had Tommy John surgery in the fall of his freshman year and spent the entire season recovering, then due to COVID-19 canceling last season, Gowens never saw the field. Hartleb said because of his age and maturity yet little playing experience, learning to start has been a “balancing act” for the junior.
“He’s extremely talented, and he earned his starts,” Hartleb said. “You see what he did in the fall to get ready and into the winter. He came back and was throwing a lot of strikes, a lot of swing-and-miss stuff. He competes really well. I think you’ll see a big difference from last outing to this outing as far as his efficiency goes.”
As far as the offensive side, the Illini will need to see stronger outings from veterans like Branden Comia, Jackson Raper, Cam McDonald and Hampe. Comia, who was one of the top collegiate hitters in the shortened 2020 season, struggled in the first weekend, hitting .077.
As a team, Illinois hit .271 in its opening weekend compared to Minnesota’s .241. However, the Golden Gophers’ Preseason Second Team All-American Zack Raabe had a hot start. The star second baseman hit .444 over the weekend, including four RBIs, four runs scored, three home runs and one double.
While Minnesota has some strong pieces, Hartleb is keeping his focus on the Illini and learning from their mistakes against the Buckeyes.
“We just need to take care of ourselves, play with composure, swing at strikes, throw strikes and make routine plays,” Hartleb said. “I never worry about other teams. The Big Ten is good; all the teams are good. If you don’t play sound baseball and play up to your potential, you can lose every game. If you play solid baseball, you have a chance to win each and every game.”