As the fourth week of the Illinois Baseball season begins, the team is preparing to go on its fourth straight trip across the United States.
The Illini have won seven of ten games so far, but none of them have been at home. The Illini have played games in both Carolinas, Florida, and will be in Arizona this weekend for a three-game set against Grand Canyon.
The Illini’s season opened with six wins, but after a 1-3 road trip to South Carolina there was some panic throughout the Illini’s fan base. Head coach Dan Hartleb made sure to settle that down.
“At the beginning of the year, if somebody tells you ‘you’re 7-3’ against the competition we were playing up front, you’d take it,” Hartleb said.
Not to mention the team has been on the road all of this season, 7-3 is pretty darn good.
Travel is common in college ball, but because Illinois deals with a colder winter than most, the baseball team starts its season with about a month on the road before even hosting a game.
Imagine this seven-day span:
- Tuesday: 3 p.m. practice
- Wednesday: 3 p.m. practice
- Thursday: travel across the nation
- Friday-Monday: games
- Maybe off Tuesday?
That’s the Illini’s reality early in the season.
A tenured player, a brand new player, a pitcher, and Hartleb all shared their perspectives on the heavy travel the team undergoes to begin the season.
This constant travel is no big deal for shortstop Ben Troike, now in his third season with the Illini.
“You get used to it.” Troike said. “I love it, It’s really cool. I get to go a lot of places I would never get to go if I wasn’t traveling with the baseball team.”
The repetition of four-day trips and only one or two practices per week has not had much of an effect on Troike at the plate either, taking a page out of Joel Embiid’s playbook.
“All the work you put in in the fall and in the winter, you work toward all that stuff to get here during the season when you get limited time to practice and to hit and everything so I think it’s just, you just trust the process of all the work that you put in and so you know that you’re ready,” Troike said.
Troike also expressed excitement to finally play in front of a home crowd.
“Getting in front of the home crowd, opening day at home is always great,” Troike said. “Seeing all the home crowd come out and just being in the home locker room, home field, just it’s a great time.”
Troike may be used to it, but it takes some adjusting from his double play duo mate, Branden Comia.
Comia is in his rookie season with the Illini and reached base safely in his first nine games. Having yet to play a home game, the middle infielder is still getting used to the weekly travel.
“The first couple weeks were hard,” Comia said, “but you get tips from the other guys and start to get the hang of it.
“I love it, it’s a lot of fun, a lot more fun than I expected it to be, but it’s a lot more of a grind too.”
Comia also described the differences between the travel in college compared to high school. Arriving home late on a Sunday night no longer means no school on Monday for Comia.
The highly ranked prospect, like Troike, also doesn’t see much of an effect in his swing.
“I think we get enough reps before the game and at the small practices we have during the week here,” Comia said.
The freshman is looking forward to his Champaign debut, only about a week away.
“I think I got all my family coming down and a few friends, so hopefully the weather stays nice.”
Andy Fisher is off to a nice start for the Illini. Fisher is 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in three games started. Like is teammates, he is only “kind of” getting used to the strenuous travel.
“The body still gets beaten up when you get back at 3 a.m. and you try to sleep and wake up for class, but once you get through a couple weeks of the season you’re kind of used to it.
“I like being around the guys...but I don’t like not getting sleep,” Fisher said.
As a pitcher, Fisher made it clear he is not affected on the mound by the travel or limited practice.
“We still come in on the off days and get any throwing in that we need to do,” Fisher said. “So pitching wise it doesn’t really affect us at all.”
In regards to pitching at home, Fisher wasn’t as excited as his teammates because of the weather forecast for the weekend of the home opener.
“I’ve been looking at the weather and it’s about 40 degrees that weekend. I’d love to have a home game, but I’d love it to be a lot warmer.”
Since the Illini played on Monday in South Carolina, the team was given Tuesday off in order to recover and relax. Wednesday is the only day the team has to practice this week. On Thursday they fly to Phoenix and Friday through Sunday are in action.
On the schedule, Hartleb said: “It was a choice to play four games on the weekend and only have one practice this week. There’s positives to competing, there’s positives to practice. The one thing about this group, the majority of the guys, even when they don’t practice, they find a way to get some work in and work to improve.”
Hartleb thinks that the team’s youth plays in to the fact that the travel does not hinder their performances.
“These guys are young, they enjoy it, they see different parts of the country.” Hartleb said, “They work hard all year for this, so the travel should not be a factor in wins and losses.”
All three players that I spoke to mentioned the most difficult part of the process is how tired they get after a trip. All three of them also mentioned class or homework as well, so Hartleb’s squad has its priorities straight.
The Illini have one final weekend of travel before finally returning home the weekend of March 15th for a three game series against Southern Illinois.
Hartleb doesn’t plan to make to many adjustments after last week’s 1-3 road trip, putting the focus on becoming a better team each week.
“We’re not gonna change anything we’ve done. [We] went out last week, I thought we played hard we just didn’t come up with some key hits or key pitches, its part of the game... it’s not an easy game, you know, just put it [the 1-3 road trip] behind you and you move forward, and we will be a better team this week.”
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