CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When the Illini played their last game against Elon, senior Garrett Acton broke Illinois’ all-time saves record in an 8-7 win.
It was unknown then, but that would be the final game of the 2020 season for Illinois — and possibly the final of Acton’s Illini career — due to the spread of COVID-19 and the cancelation of all spring sports’ seasons.
Once just a transfer from Parkland College, Acton is now one of the nation’s top closers and a leader on the Illini’s pitching staff. Acton led the nation in saves his junior year and had already shut down a few games in 2020. Of the Illini’s eight wins, Acton closed the door in six of them.
Acton was one of the few seniors on the team, and immediately had his future in question when his senior season was cut short. Since then, however, the NCAA has announced that all spring sport athletes will be granted another year of eligibility, but the senior has yet to fully weigh his choices.
“I think there’s a number of great options on the table,” Acton said.
Acton has always been very thoughtful in his decision-making.
In 2016, when Acton’s Lemont High School team was winning a state championship, he was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. Instead of trying to make money and go pro, Acton bet on himself, valued his education and decided to go to college.
Fast-forward two years to the fall of 2018 when Acton was pitching for Parkland, he committed to Illinois with two years of eligibility left.
His 2019 season at Illinois turned heads — his 19 saves led the country and he was named an All-American and a member of various all-conference, all-region, and all-district teams.
That grabbed the attention of MLB scouts.
But Acton again declined a chance to go pro. The closer valued a chance to get a degree from Illinois and also had a heightened goal to build the culture of the Illinois program with fellow senior Ty Weber, among others. However, Acton seemed primed to go to the MLB after his senior season.
With his senior season halted after just 13 games, it is unknown what Acton will do. Would he decide to go to the MLB on his third chance, or snatch an opportunity to bet on himself, build his draft stock and get a masters’ degree?
Acton is staying positive in what he calls a “dark situation.”
“If I end up at the end of the year going back to school and getting a masters’, that’s a great opportunity for me,” Acton said. “If I get the opportunity to play professional baseball, if that’s the right situation, that’s a great opportunity.”
In terms of what his head coach had to say about his seniors and their future, it didn’t seem like Dan Hartleb would push guys either way.
“I will give them an opinion [whether to stay or go] based on the research that I do and the information that I have.
“Would I love to have some guys back? Absolutely I would,” Hartleb said. “But it would have to be under the right circumstances.”
It is unknown if those circumstances are right, and that is a conversation for the future. But for Acton, who may have played his last game in an Illini uniform — and did so in a record-breaking fashion — he has some time to reflect.
“It’s a bit crazy to all think about, if it is my last game, obviously it’d be pretty cool way to go out,” Acton said. “It’s something to be proud of and, more importantly, I’m proud to be a part of this program.”