Evolving Illini baseball team ready for season debut

The last month of practicing indoors at Irwin Indoor Facility had gotten pretty old for Illini baseball. The team will finally get its chance to play outdoors in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Fla., where temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s and lower 80s.

“I think the sky is permanently grey (in Champaign),” center fielder Willie Argo said with a laugh. “We’re excited to see some blue skies some sunshine and get out there and play on a real field.”

Illinois is set to face Notre Dame, No. 25 Louisville and St. Johns, which received some top-25 votes, Friday through Sunday as part of the Big Ten/Big East challenge.

Head coach Dan Hartleb has put together a schedule he believes will have his defending Big Ten regular season and conference champion Illini ready for conference play.

“Tough schedule just means you have to show up every day to play and you have to do things properly,” Hartleb said. “To be a team that gets in the NCAA tournament and to compete in the NCAA tournament, you have to do that regardless of your competition.”

This isn’t the same team that made a run last spring to the Big Ten championship. Twelve of last year’s players are gone, and 22 of the 35-man roster are freshmen or sophomores.

The Illini will use five new starters in the field, including a brand new infield, with the exception of returning third baseman Brandon Hohl. Argo and right fielder Davis Hendrickson will return to the outfield and will be joined in left field by a familiar face moving from designated hitter, junior Justin Parr.

“It’s fun for me,” Parr said. “I like playing the field, I like being involved in the game as much as possible and hopefully being an impact player and really separating defense from offense.”

Illinois still returns about 48 percent of last year’s hitting (265 of 554), but only 42.7 percent of its runs. Hartleb says he wants to try and get a lot of players game action early in the season to see how they respond. His roster includes 18 players who have never played an inning at Illinois, including 11 pitchers.

“I don’t think youth is an excuse,” Hartleb said. “We have players, and once you step on the field you go play to win.”

Inexperience is a big reason why Illinois has been picked to finish sixth in the conference by the Big Ten coaches. Michigan State is the preseason favorite. The Illini shrugged off the prediction, saying it doesn’t mean much to them.

“It’s always a little bit of a shot in the dark when you try to look at what other teams have,” Hartleb said. “I have no problem with us being sixth. I don’t care where we are at the beginning of the year, it’s where we are at the end of the year.”

Kevin Johnson will be the Illini’s opening day starter Friday.

The junior returns as one of the veterans on a staff that has lost 293 innings, 38 starts and 61 relief appearances from last year, about 59 percent of the total innings pitched. Hartleb said the Friday starting spot is Johnson’s as long as he stays consistent.

Johnson’s said he’s been working to get stronger and keep his velocity up throughout the entire game and said he’s coming into the season feeling like he’s in the best shape of his life.

Redshirt freshman Rob McDonnell will get his first career start Saturday night for the Illini and senior Nick Chmielewski, returning after Tommy John surgery, will take the ball Sunday.

This weekend marks the fourth year of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge, and the Illini are 4-5 all time. They open the season against Notre Dame for the second time in the past three years. Illinois won 11-1 in the last meeting in 2010. The first pitch of the season is at noon Friday.