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Illinois a “different experience” for catcher Jeff Korte

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Aside from the snow, Korte settling in well as the Illini’s backstop.

Illinois catcher Jeff Korte (32) sits behind the plate.
Jonathan Bonaguro

It doesn’t snow in the middle of April where Jeff Korte is from.

But Korte, a native of Melbourne, Florida, is now living in the tundra known as Champaign-Urbana.

“It’s definitely a different experience for me,” said Illinois’ junior catcher. “I’ve seen snow a few times when visiting relatives in New York, but living it in everyday, I wouldn’t say it’s fun.”

It has also been a pretty different experience and transition as he made the move from Eastern Florida State College, a junior college, to a Big Ten program like the University of Illinois.

While Korte does not regret finding a home behind the plate in Champaign, his goal was to play at an in-state school. His plans were rerouted after an injury following his freshman season at EFSC in Melbourne as Florida schools like South Florida and Florida State recruited other catchers for their teams.

And that’s when Korte’s relationship with Illinois began.

Korte sent out e-mails to schools around the country and asked for them to come watch him play summer ball and recruit him. Illinois’ staff was impressed by his .343 batting average and 19 RBI as a sophomore at EFSC and traveled down south to watch him play summer ball.

Illinois finished 10th in the Big Ten in 2017 with a 23-28 overall record. One of the Illini’s weakest positions was catcher, a spot Korte would be able to compete with David Craan (.133 average) and Mark Skonieczny (.228) for in 2018.

“I thought we needed to upgrade our catching position,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “I wasn’t pleased with the performances we had last year. We wanted to create some competition back there, and we did that.”

Illinois flew Korte up to Champaign for a visit to the campus, and he made his choice.

Illinois catcher Jeff Korte (32) swings at a pitch on Sunday, April 15, 2018, against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Illinois Field.
Tom Jozefowicz

While Korte knew the campus nice and the weather would be cold, he did not know much else about Illinois athletics. He recalled watching Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams lead Illinois Football to the 2008 Rose Bowl, but his knowledge of the Illini was limited besides that — except for Illinois Baseball’s 50-win 2015 season.

What Korte didn’t know about was that Illinois had struggled in baseball the past two seasons, missing the Big Ten Tournament each year.

“I always thought this was a baseball school when compared to other sports,” Korte said. “When I came here, the group of guys seemed like they were winners. I came from a junior college that won a lot, and I wanted to bring that mentality here, too.”

Early Season Struggles

While Hartleb was not sure if Korte would be the starting catcher in 2018, he certainly expected an all-around complete player, especially at the plate. Korte has gotten the opportunities so far, playing in 29 games and starting 27.

But he had gotten off to a slow start early on, recording only two base hits through his first six starts and seeing his average dip to .111.

“Earlier in the year I was trying to do too much,” Korte said. “It was good pitching, but not as good as I thought it’d be. I was trying to hit home runs, but I started looking at my average and realized I can’t do that.”

As Korte worked with right fielder Jack Yalowitz and centerfielder Zac Taylor and simplified his approach at the plate, the average started to climb and is up to .238 following Illinois’ home sweep over Rutgers on April 15. He even had the game-winning RBI single against the Scarlet Knights on April 13, driving Yalowitz home in a 13-12 victory.

“I was really struggling early in the season,” Korte said. “But now, every time I get up to the plate, I see the ball a little better.”

Calling a Game

Korte says there is not much of a difference between the level of competition in the Big Ten and junior college baseball in Florida, which could come as a surprise to some.

“Last year I probably faced four or five guys who got picked in the MLB Draft,” Korte said.

Where the style of play has differed for the junior is in his opportunity to call a game from behind the plate.

Korte has a wristband he wears on his left wrist during the game with different pitches and situations. At the junior college level, pitches were called by coaches from the dugout.

For a majority of his nine starts this season, sophomore right-handed pitcher Ty Weber has worked the battery with Korte. While the two have come to work well together during the game, it took extra effort in the offseason to find that consistency.

“(The entire pitching staff) just gelled with Jeff, and we worked a lot in the fall with him,” Weber said. “I really like the way he calls games. He likes to throw off-speed (pitches) in hitters’ counts, and that always messes up the batters.”

The Winning Mentality

Since February in Champaign is not typical baseball weather, Illinois schedules early season games at out-of-state tournaments. Some of those this season included a series at 2016 Division I National Champion Coastal Carolina and the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge at the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium, U.S. Bank Stadium.

Overall, all travel is different now for Korte at the Division I level.

“I was riding in vans and crammed in the back with three or four people (at EFSC),” Korte said. “And now we’re taking buses and planes. It’s really cool.”

Yet, travel and statistics are not what are really important to Illinois’ newest catcher. As long as he is doing his job behind the plate and the Illini (23-8, 9-3 Big Ten) are winning, everything will work itself out.

“I just try to help the team as best as I can,” Korte said. “If I become selfish and worry about my numbers, the team will scuffle.

“As long as we’re winning, it really doesn’t matter to me. We’ve just got to keep doing it.”