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Illinois looking for improvement in season’s second weekend

The Illini split their first two games.

Illinois did not even know when it was going to play its first game of the season. The Illini were slated to open the 2018 baseball season in Texas before a cancelled flight forced the team to schedule a series in St. Louis beginning last Saturday. Snow on Saturday cancelled ‘Opening Day,’ and the Illini played a doubleheader on Sunday.

Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb says sometimes you have to adjust on the fly as an athlete.

“It’s part of being an athlete,” Hartleb said. “Especially when you’re in an outdoor sport that needs to play in good weather. When it’s your time to walk out on the field, you’ve got to be ready to go.”

The Illini were ready to go in the season opener versus South Dakota State, handing the Jackrabbit, 5-2. A stagnant offense in the second game led to a 2-0 loss to Austin Peay.

After a disappointing 23-28 season in 2017, Hartleb knows his team can be better this year than during the first pair of games.

“I was tough on the entire team on Monday,” Hartleb said. “They’re disappointed in what they did. If they learn from it, then it’s all good. If we’re the same next week at this time as we are right now, then we failed.”

One Illini with a strong showing at the plate last weekend was sophomore shortstop Ben Troike.

Troike went 3-for-8 (.375) and drove in three runs against South Dakota State.

He hit .234 with 20 RBIs last season, and Hartleb has loftier expectations for him in his second year.

“Freshman year is tough, I don’t care what the situation is,” Hartleb said. “He went out (last weekend), hit the ball on the nose, used the whole field, hit a lot of line drives because the wind was blowing in. I thought he had a really good weekend.”

Illinois plays Coastal Carolina (twice), West Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth this weekend in Conway, South Carolina.

Sophomores Ty Weber and Cyrillo Watson started the first two games, neither escaping the fifth inning on a predetermined pitch limit. Weber, who will start Saturday’s game versus Coastal Carolina, went 4.2 innings and allowed four hits and two earned runs against South Dakota State.

Watson, who will start against VCU on Sunday, went four innings and allowed eight hits, two earned runs and walked two.

Two of Illinois’ top pitchers, Hartleb stresses he needs to see a better performance this time around.

“Both Ty and Cyrillo really compete and battle,” Hartleb said. “I know putting them out there they care and try to do anything they can to help us win, but they weren’t sharp. They know where they need to get to, and they’re disappointed in what happened.”

Illinois (1-1) gets started Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. CT against 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina.