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Illini Baseball in NCAAs for First Time in Years

Illini Baseball in NCAAs for First Time in Years

Trailing Ohio State 4-1 late in the Big Ten tournament opener, Illinois had to win to keep its season alive and had just two outs left to do it.

Right on cue, the Illini produced four runs in the bottom of the ninth to rally - and they weren't the least bit surprised they did it.

Their whole season, in fact, has been one big comeback to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. After opening the season 12-21, the Illini won 16 of their last 20 and won the conference tournament.

"We cut it close, I would say," coach Dan Hartleb said Thursday, laughing at his own understatement. "There's no doubt - we had to win the (Big Ten) tournament to get into the NCAA tournament."

The fourth-seeded Illini (28-25) will face No. 1 seed Cal State Fullerton (40-15) in Fullerton, Calif., on Friday. Illinois will play at least one more game over the weekend against either Stanford or Kansas State in the double-elimination regional.

The regional winner advances to the super regional round and a shot at going to the College World Series.

For the first time in a while, Illinois can lose Friday and keep playing, though pitcher Kevin Johnson isn't looking at the game that way. He said the now-or-never pressure suits him.

"I like to think about this game, it's make or break," said Johnson, a sophomore right-hander who will start Friday's game against the Titans. "I like to put that pressure on myself."

The Illini have played under that kind of pressure since their low point in April, a 4-1 loss to Eastern Illinois that left them in a deep hole. Hartleb said the game ended with a "pointed and direct" conversation with three key players - first baseman Matt Dittman and outfielders Willie Argo and Casey McMurray - whose early struggles explained a lot of what was wrong with Illinois.

"It was an ugly loss. We couldn't hit, we couldn't field. We played terrible," Hartleb said. "I just told them, 'You guys have to start producing for us to be successful. Forget about the past; we're gonna' judge you by your next 19 games.'"

Over the next couple of weeks, Hartleb said, those three came around and they brought the rest of the team with them.

Fullerton's 40 wins, No. 13 ranking and the 20 straight seasons the Titans have made it to at least the NCAA regionals sound like good reasons for the Illini to be worried. The Illini's Johnson said the Titans play small ball, an offensive style he prefers facing as a pitcher.

"We can't put any more pressure on ourselves," said Johnson, speaking by telephone from beside a pool in Southern California. "We've got nothing to lose.

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