Illinois Fighting Illini
Head Coach: Dan Hartleb
2008 Record: 30-23 (16-15, 4th in the Big Ten)
At The Plate: The Illini open practice with a number of positional battles underway. While we won’t know exactly who will begin the year at every spot, there are some names we can confidently pencil into the lineup now. The first is Brandon Wikoff at shorstop. Wikoff hit .369 with 79 hits (T-9 in Big Ten) and 61 RBI (T-5) a year ago.
Wikoff has garnered some preseason all-Big Ten selections already. Ok, we can use a pen with Wikoff.
Aaron Johnson (.306, 5 HR, 29 RBI), a junior, returns behind the dish and senior Dominic Altobelli (.329, 4 HR, 38 RBI) will hold down the hot corner. You can use ink with both of them, as well. 2008 Freshmen All-America Casey McMurray will be in the lineup everyday, as well. You’ve got to use a pencil for his position, though. McMurray (.331) will be in either LF or at DH.
Like McMurray, you can write Joe Bonadonna’s name in pen, too. Just keep the pencil handy, as he will be playing either at 2B or CF. Bonadonna who, like Wikoff, started and played in 56 games last year, hit .356, stole 25 bases (4th in the Big Ten) and drove in 34 runs in ’08. Veteran Craig Lutes (.245) also looks to be in line for a starting role. He will hold down either CF or RF.
The position battles are at first base (Mike Giller and Matt Dittman), second base (where Josh Parr, a freshman, and Pete Cappetta are trying to push Bonadonna to the OF) and in the outfield (where freshman Willie Argo, a draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks last year, and Nick Stockwell could end up seeing playing time).
On The Mound: Things are clearer in the Illinois’ rotation, although it begins with a surprise. Freshman Bryan Roberts appears to be the Illini’s Friday starter. A strong fall performance has the Coach Hartleb leaning towards making the first year player his number one starter. Returnees Kevin Manson (8-2, 5.42), Aaron Martin (4-7, 7.09) and Phil Haig (2-3, 6.19) will follow Roberts in the rotation.
The closer role is being given to sophomore Nick Chmielwski (3-2, 7.39 in 31.2 IP).
The Schedule: When reviewing Illinois’ schedule, one series jumps right off the page. Coach Hartleb’s side is heading down to Baton Rouge for a three game set against Louisiana State. The Tigers are in nearly everyone’s top five and some have LSU ranked as the top team in the land heading into Opening Day. That should be an interesting weekend for the Illini.
The remainder of their non-conference slate, both before and during the Big 10 season, is fairly standard fare. There are trips to Edinburg, Texas and Winter Haven, Florida dotting the pre-conference schedule and all the DI in-state programs (Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois, ISU, etc…) for midweek opposition during the Big Ten campaign.
The conference schedule has Michigan State opening the year in Champaign-Urbana, followed by visits from Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State. The blue and orange will travel to Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue.
Bottom Line: Illinois will go as far as their pitching lets them. This team, like many of the recent Illini squads, should swing the bats well enough, steal a few bases and play tough day-in and day-out. The question will be how their arms, especially the unproven ones, hold up.
The thought here is that the Illini should secure another top six Big Ten finish and a trip to Huntington Park and the conference tournament