CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In early March, Illini fans were looking forward to Illinois Basketball heading to its first NCAA Tournament in over half a decade.
In early March, spring and winter sports were practicing in full swing, excited for the potential they had.
And in early March, senior pitcher Ty Weber and I sat down to talk about his expectations for his future on the mound.
“I just hope at the end of the year we can make it to the postseason, the Big Ten Tournament,” Weber told me.
Less than two weeks after that initial interview, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships, while the Big Ten canceled the rest of its athletic calendar, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The high hopes Weber had for the future, all being questioned now, with a striking difference in tone.
“On Thursday when we found out that our season was cancelled, I was in my apartment with my roommates and we just kinda were all looking at each other in awe,” Weber said in a teleconference Tuesday.
As a student-athlete, Weber had to think about graduation, his season ending abruptly, his team — and the upcoming MLB Draft.
“I’m gonna be honest and say that the season ending hasn’t fully really hit me yet” Weber said. “I’m still in a weird period where we’re getting texts every other day saying our agenda for the day on what time we’re gonna have [batting practice].”
Weber started his journey with the Illini as a sophomore at Menomonee Falls (Wis.) High School when then-pitching coach Drew Dickinson expressed interest.
But going Division I wasn’t always the goal for a young Weber.
“It wasn’t really a reality in my mind until I got to high school,” Weber said. “Growing up all you think about is being a kid, is going out, and having fun.”
But when he got to high school he realized his talent was there, and playing college ball was a possibility. Weber committed to Illinois in May 2015.
The transition from high school to college baseball came as a shock to Weber, who was a three-sport athlete in high school. He went from multiple focuses to zoning in on just baseball. But at the end of the day, the game was his constant.
“I think the actual game of baseball itself didn’t change a whole lot but everything around it did.”
Right now Weber has a lot to think about.
Amid the season’s cancelation, the NCAA is granting a fifth year to all true senior spring athletes, which Weber could accept if he wants.
“The fact that I do have options allows me to really navigate different avenues and see where my life could potentially end up,” Weber said.
Weber has been successful at Illinois, with a 3.97 career ERA and 12 wins.
With his college career cut short, however, is it enough to earn him a solid draft position? There is also the hovering potential of draft rounds being cut short, and nobody is sure what the draft will even look like, with the MLB season entirely in question. It just adds to the list of things Weber is considering.
But while Weber is home, he is trying to come to terms with everything, one day at a time.
“I told my parents I really didn't want to talk about what decision I will make until I had a conversation with [Illinois Head Coach Dan] Hartleb,” Weber said. “Once I talk to coach Hartleb that’s when I’ll know more clearly of what I would like to do.
“But up until then, it’s just looking back on some of the good starts that I’ve had in the past couple years and some of the bad starts and stuff I could work on. And just more of looking at the memories and how much fun the last couple years have been.”
According to Weber, the Texas A&M start where he went 6.2 innings was his best outing on this season.
He said his worst Illinois start was during his sophomore season in the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana (2.1 IP, 3 ER, 5 hits, 1 strikeout). Weber said he and his parents laugh about it now because he had pneumonia and he didn't know it at the time.
In a short senior campaign, Weber went 3-1 with a sparkling 1.31 ERA.
Whether he moves on this year or the next, Weber said his one goal has remained the same: get drafted.
“It’s definitely still a goal. Everything is just kinda turned upside down and when is the draft going to be? Is it going to be a draft that only has a certain number of rounds? That’s stuff that I, myself, haven’t fully grasped and thought in depth of.”
But Weber isn’t in too much of a rush to consider that.
He’s focusing on what he can control — his physical health. He said all of the mental-thought processing will be considered down the road.
And while it is frustrating right now, Weber said he has one message to Illini Nation as he makes his decision on his future.
“Whatever the fans are going through, the athletes are going through with them.”