Memorial Day weekend normally signals the beginning of summer, as schools across the state let out and kids everywhere start their three months of freedom. It seems strange to still be talking Illini baseball as this time of the year approaches, but the fact that they are still playing is all the more reason to give them some much needed print. After defeating Indiana in 3 straight games to wrap up the regular season, the Illini made the trip east to Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio for the Big Ten Tournament. Since schools in the midwest do not normally qualify as an at-large entry in the NCAA Tournament, the Illini would need to win the Big Ten Tourney in order to crack the field of 64 on Selection Monday, which, coincidentally, also was Memorial Day. Being the top seed in the tourney, the Illini had the pleasure of watching the other teams do battle, knowing full well that they would be facing one of the lower seeded teams when they finally took the field on Thursday. That team was Ohio State, which acted as the host school, since the tourney took place in Columbus, and what was to come about was truly epic. Down 4-1 heading into the last of the ninth, the Illini mounted a comeback for the ages, scoring 4 times in the frame on a walk-off single by Davis Hendrickson. The momentum from that game carried on into Friday evening, as the Illini took on regular season champion Michigan State. Needless to say, pitching was the name of the game as John Anderson threw a gem, going 7 1/3 innings and only allowing 1 earned run in notching the win and vaulting the Illini into the championship game on Saturday. The Illini were set to rematch against the Spartans after they dispatched the Minnesota Golden Gophers earlier in the day. In the title game, the Illini bats came alive, as Matt Dittman clubbed a grand slam over the right field wall and gave Corey Kimes all he would need, as Kimes went the distance, striking out 7 to give the Illini the Big Ten Tourney crown and the automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. With the win, the Illini won their 8th straight game and improved to 28-25 overall, awaiting their fate on Monday.
Going to the NCAA Tournament is not a familiar trek for the Illini baseball team, as they had not been included in the field since 2000, when Itch Jones was still the coach. So, you can imagine the excitement on Memorial Day when the Illini were finally called and saw where they were headed. The destination was Fullerton, California to play Cal State-Fullerton on Friday evening at 10:00 pm central time (televised by ESPNU). The Titans are familiar to the Illini, mainly because Augie Garrido, who was a former coach of the Illini before Jones came to Champaign, was a long time coach at CSF. The Titans are the top seed in the regional and come in to the game with the Illini at 40-15 overall. The Titans play in the Big West Conference, and compiled a 19-5 mark this season to top the standings. The other two teams in the regional are Stanford and Kansas State, and for the Illini to emerge victorious and play on, they need some more of the magic that they have been able to muster for the last 10 games of the regular season, where they have gone 9-1. This Illini team is playing about as good as anyone in the country, so the prospects of them moving on is just as good as any other team making the move. Hey, lightning can strike twice, can't it?
Speaking of lightning striking, how about the turn of events over in Columbus, Ohio over the past couple of weeks? An ongoing situation came to an unforseen conclusion last week with the resignation of Buckeye head football coach Jim Tressel amid allegations that he covered up knowledge of memorabilia and other "perks" given to star players. Tressel for many years has been viewed as the picture of honesty, fielding good football teams each and every year. But, truth be told, Tressel has had a history of shady findings, even at his last job at Youngstown State, where he was also very successful. Many believe that the penalties that will be assessed to the Ohio State program will be justified, given the nature of the infractions. The Buckeyes have been on a pedestal for many years, and this will undoubtedly knock them from that perch and bring them back to the middle of the pack. With Nebraska coming into the league next month, this opens up a grand opportunity for the Cornhuskers to gain supremacy right away.
More next week, including the results of the Illini in the NCAA Regionals. It's summer, folks!!