Illini set to play in Champaign for first time in over one year

Junior+Nathan+Lavender+winds+up+for+a+pitch+during+a+game.+The+Illinois+men%E2%80%99s+baseball+team+is+set+to+play+in+Champaign+for+the+first+time+in+over+a+year+against+Northwestern+today.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Nathan Lavender winds up for a pitch during a game. The Illinois men’s baseball team is set to play in Champaign for the first time in over a year against Northwestern today.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

For the first time in 388 days, Illinois Field will be used for more than a practice or intrasquad scrimmage. The last time Illinois baseball played in Champaign was March 2020 against Chicago State, when the Illini won their only home game of the season.

On Friday, Illinois will open up a three-game series against Northwestern, the first series in Champaign since May 2019. While the Big Ten announced earlier this week fans would now be allowed at spring sporting events, Illinois Athletics has yet to give the all-clear. However, each guy on the baseball team is allowed two immediate family members to attend home games.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said junior Nate Lavender on being back at home. “First few weekends it’s been on the road, a lot of time away from home in Champaign. It’s good to be back; we spend a lot of time at this field. It’s nice to be at home. I know we’re allowed a couple of immediate family members, so it’ll be nice to have the parents come down and support the guys, and I think everybody can say the same.”

The Illini (6-6) are coming off a weekend up north where they competed in a pod with No. 13 Michigan and Michigan State, playing two games against each team. Illinois won the front and back ends of its weekend but dropped both Saturday games, going 1-1 with the Wolverines and the Spartans.

Through three weekends of four-game series, the Illini have yet to sweep a team, something they will likely need to accomplish to make the postseason this year, especially with the absence of the Big Ten Tournament.

While the Illini returned almost their entire roster from last year, more than half of the roster has yet to experience a complete college baseball season. According to head coach Dan Hartleb, who dug deep into the experience issue following last weekend, none of his guys have more than a season’s experience at the Division I level.

“When you don’t have those experiences, sometimes you press and try to do too much,” Hartleb said. “It doesn’t mean I won’t push our guys and continue to do certain things in practice and have that expectation. But I think I also need to look at the fact that these guys haven’t had to experience things and be on the on-field leaders and carry the load. So, I do believe as we move forward, we’ll continue to get better and better the more experience we gain.”

Hartleb and his squad will need to level up even more this weekend, as the Wildcats come into Champaign with a 7-4 record, with series wins over Michigan State and Minnesota in the last two weekends. Northwestern boasts the conference’s top batting average of .284, led by two of the top five batters in the Big Ten — Anthony Calarco, who bats .442, and David Dunn, who bats .440.

Calarco leads the Wildcats in at-bats (43), hits (19), runs (14) and doubles (7), while Dunn has 11 hits on just 25 at-bats.

Illinois will look to combat Northwestern’s explosive lineup with two of the top 20 pitchers in the conference. Coming in at No. 4 with a 1.93 ERA, Andrew Hoffman will start on the mound on Friday for the fourth time this season. Hoffman has led the Illini to two straight Friday night wins and has totaled 18.2 innings pitched with 21 strikeouts and just four earned runs.

Cole Kirschsieper, who will continue his Sunday afternoon starting role, is the conference’s 17th best pitcher. The sophomore is 2-1 on the season with a 3.86 ERA, totaling 12 strikeouts. Ty Rybarczyk rounds at Illinois’ starters on the mound.

While the Wildcats come with an edge on offense, the Illini’s success at the plate has been building throughout the season. Four Illini sit with batting averages above .300 — Ryan Hampe, Taylor Jackson, Justin Janas and Jackson Raper — while Hampe leads the way, hitting .340.

However, the guys still believe the team’s potential on offense hasn’t been reached.

“I personally believe we have one of the best lineups, talent-wise,” Lavender said. “And I think it’s just a matter of time before those guys absolutely break out and start going to town.”

Illinois’ home opener will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday followed by 1 p.m. games on Saturday and Sunday.

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