College 2010: Illinois/Indiana

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David Rawnsley        
Published: Thursday, February 11, 2010

It was not a great year for college baseball in Illinois and Indiana in 2009. Of the 20 Division I teams in the combined two-state area, only one, prospect-laden but underachieving Indiana, gained an NCAA tournament berth.

The Hoosiers did that only by sweeping impressively through the Big 10 Conference tournament (4-0 record, 47-9 run differential) after a modest 28-25 regular season. They were quickly dispatched in regional play, however, going 0-2.

In all fairness, Indiana’s surprise Big 10 victory and the automatic NCAA berth that went with it may have cost more-deserving Illinois (34-20, including two wins over national champion LSU), Eastern Illinois (36-14, wins over both Indiana and Illinois) and even Notre Dame (36-23) a regional bid.

Indiana at least had the distinction of having three players drafted among the first 46 selections in last June’s draft. Righthander Eric Arnett went 26th overall to the Milwaukee Brewers, catcher Josh Phegley 38th to the Chicago White Sox and lefthander Matt Bashore 46th to the Minnesota Twins.

Can 2010 be any better?

There are three schools from Illinois and Indiana that are ranked in PGCrosschecker’s pre-season ranking of the nation’s Top 100 teams: Notre Dame at No. 44, Ball State at No. 87 and Illinois at No. 89.

The Fighting Irish are obviously the best-positioned team to be playing deep into June. They return their entire weekend rotation of righthanders Cole Johnson and Brian Dupra and lefthander Eric Maust (combined 19-11), and regain the services of righthander Ryan Sharpley (4-2 in 2008) from shoulder surgery. Righthander Evan Danieli, a projected early-round pick, has been lost for the season, however, with a disabling arm injury of his own.

Runs may be a little harder to come by for coach Dave Schrage’s team, especially after outfielder Golden Tate (.329-1-29) elected to pass on the 2010 baseball season to prepare himself for the NFL draft.

Ball State has the most productive player in the region, if not potentially the best prospect, in junior infielder/righthander Kolbrin Vitek, who hit .389-13-67 as a sophomore while also going 4-3 in 57 innings on the mound. He then won the Great Lakes League triple crown during the summer.

Illinois lost some valuable pieces to graduation and the draft, but returns sophomore outfielder Willie Argo, a high-ceiling athlete who should keep improving on his freshman performance and potentially be a significant draft in 2011, and senior catcher Aaron Johnson (.333-10-52). A key for the Illini could be the development of hard-throwing junior closer Lee Zurrusen (2-1, 5.44, 2 SV), easily the most talented member of its pitching staff.

Eastern Illinois lost lefthander Tyler Kehrer, a first-round compensation pick of the Los Angeles Angels, along with top hitter Brett Nommensen (.525-11-27 in 31 games) but returns plenty of draftable talent, notably righthanders Josh Mueller and Mike Recchia, who could be snapped up quickly in June.

A program to watch is Indiana State, which improved from 18-32 in 2008 to 33-20 last season, and returns a number of key performers. The Sycamores also have a new coach in Rick Heller, who fielded competitive teams for 12 years in the Missouri Valley Conference for the now-disbanded Northern Iowa program.

GREAT LAKES: IN A NUTSHELL



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