CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the first time in over 35 springs, Dan Hartleb will not have to make a baseball-related decision on the weekend.
“The only time I’ve ever had this helpless feeling, was 9/11,” said Illinois Baseball’s head coach.
Last Friday when the Illini’s season came to a screeching stop after the Big Ten canceled all spring sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, plenty of thoughts circled Hartleb’s head about losing his season.
“I thought we would grow and get better and better as the season progressed,” he said in a teleconference Tuesday.
As it stands, the Illini finished the 2020 season with a 8-5 record. It ended on a two-game winning streak, in a ‘season’ highlighted by ranked wins back-to-back nights at the Frisco Classic against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.
The team was led by Branden Comia, who in those 13 games slashed .426/.526/.702 with two homers and a team-high 10 runs driven in. The sophomore shortstop was off to a historic start, but Hartleb is convinced that won’t be it for Comia.
“Branden is a great player and great players play great,” Hartleb said. “Once he gets a chance back on the field he’ll get rolling again.
“I think he can be one of the top shortstops in the country a year from now.”
For seniors Ty Weber, Garrett Acton, Ryan Schmitt, Josh Harris, Nick Menken and redshirt-junior Andrew Dyke — next year is a huge question mark.
“All I was thinking about was ‘Wow, my time at Illinois could be over,’” said Weber, who was expected to provide veteran leadership on the Illini’s pitching staff.
Over the past week, the NCAA announced it will grant not only all seniors, but all spring sport athletes, an extra year of eligibility, serving essentially the same purpose of a redshirt season.
“It gave guys hope,” Hartleb said.
But Hartleb isn’t quite sure yet what it will mean in the big scheme of things.
“I’ve had plenty of time to think, believe me,” Hartleb joked.
Hartleb was quick to point out how this will impact next year’s roster and rosters in the future. The NCAA will need to grant the team more money to spend on scholarships. Illinois, and other teams, could also have a larger roster with essentially five classes of athletes being permitted to be on the team. Plus, JUCO student athletes will be granted three years of eligibility instead of two, since they have already committed but their seasons have also been canceled.
He pointed out that this could impact rosters both athletically and financially for the next five years, but in regards to recruiting — which also have restrictions in terms of numbers — Hartleb was proud to point out his team was essentially built.
“We were basically done with our incoming class,” Hartleb said, later adding that with or without this year’s seniors that, “We’ll have much more depth next year.”
But what about those seniors?
“Would I love to have some guys back? Absolutely I would,” Hartleb said, “but it would have to be under the right circumstances.”
Each case is different, so will the Illini skipper give them a second recruiting pitch to come back?
“I will give them an opinion based on the research that I do and the information that I have.”
Because in regards to the entire situation, the rest of the programs across the country are in the same boat.
“We’re in a wait and see mode.”