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Replacing Spillane: Freshman Kellen Sarver makes it easy

Illinois’ Kellen Sarver is making waves his first year playing.

Champaign native Kellen Sarver came to the University of Illinois in 2017 with a world of change. Not only did the Centennial (Champaign) High School graduate have to adjust to being a college student, but had to learn to play first base before he joined the Illini last fall.

“It was weird at first,” said Illinois teammate Jimmy Burnette. “I grew up playing with Kellen, we would play on the same travel team. It’s been cool to see how he transformed from a left-handed catcher.”

Sarver was originally recruited to play at Illinois as a catcher and third baseman, but since the Illini needed a future first baseman after Bren Spillane was drafted last year, Sarver stepped up.

“I had to make an adjustment coming in,” Sarver said. “I had time over the summer to develop over at first base so when I came in I was ready to play the position coming in.”

Sarver has been an important part of an Illinois defense that is third in the nation in fielding percentage (.982). Sarver has only committed three errors this year, good for a near perfect fielding percentage of .992.

Head Coach Dan Hartleb didn’t think that Sarver was ready to play right away and had better players in front of him.

“It’s new to him and we have had some growing pains as we’ve gone through the season,” Hartleb said. “If you look at some of the plays he’s made on balls in the dirt, his footwork around the bag, and going into foul territory to take some throws, he’s done a really good job.”

With Bren Spillane already at first base in 2018, Hartleb and Sarver had decided that it would be best that Sarver take a redshirt year to improve.

On sitting Sarver last season, Hartleb said: “To waste a season on 15 at-bats just wasn’t worth it so it was a conversation that we had. We encouraged him to do that and he made a good decision by sitting out last year.”

To sit out a year was a tough call for Sarver.

“I knew that [redshirting] was for the better and now I’m excited to be playing every single game for the Illini,” Sarver said.

As a redshirt-freshman Sarver has made a difference for a team that is threatening to host a NCAA Tournament Regional. Sarver has stepped up in the cleanup spot hitting an average of .269 with an on-base percentage of .383.

And Sarver still has three years to develop his game.

“He’ll get better out there too,” Hartleb says.

Illinois faces Michigan State in East Lansing this weekend. The Illini then will play in the Big Ten Tournament starting on May 22.

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