Illini Super Regional: Sizing Up Vanderbilt
The University of Illinois baseball team has already set a school record with 50 wins this year. But, they’ll have to win two more at this weekend's NCAA Super Regional in Champaign, to make it to the College World Series in Omaha.
Their opponent at Illinois Field is defending national champion Vanderbilt. The Commodores have competed in the NCAA tournament each year since 2004, while Illinois is reaching the Super Regional for the first time.
Coach Dan Hartleb said he's been confident for some time that the Illini could reach this point.
“I thought we were a better club last year that we got respect for," he said. "But there were some games that we dropped maybe we shouldn’t have. And I really thought when the year was over last year, that if guys dedicated themselves to getting better both physically and mentally that we could be an outstanding team.”
In this May 29, 2015, file photo, Vanderbilt pitcher Carson Fulmer throws during the first inning of the team's 9-1 defeat of Lipscomb in Nashville, TN. Illinois will face Vanderbilt's ace Carson Fulmer in the Super Regionals Saturday in Champaign. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)
Christian D’Andrea is Editor in Chief of the Anchor of Gold website (@TrainIsland on Twitter), and has covered Vanderbilt Commodores Baseball since 2009. He's seen a number of their players go on to the major leagues, like pitcher David Price of the Detroit Tigers.
Despite the Commodores' dominance over the last decade, D'Andrea expects a formidable opponent in the Illini.
"I think we're going to see a tight game on Saturday, obviously with two titans on the mound (Fullmer and Illinois starter Kevin Duchene)," he said. "After that, I think this whole series is going to blow up. Vandy's obviously on a hot streak. But then the Illini - I don't know what Vandy's going to do with (Illini Big Ten Player of the Year) David Kerian. The guy's on an-base machine, he hits home runs, he's fast on the basepaths - faster than what you expect from a first baseman. He seems like the total package - it's going to be very interesting to see what Tim Corbin and Vanderbilt decide to do when he's up at the plate."
It’s also a busy time for major league scouts. Illini Relief pitcher Tyler Jay is expected to be go early in next week’s big league draft, as are a couple of players with Vaderbilt.
But Jay said it’s the last thing on his mind now.
“I’m sure those guys feel the same way," he said. "It’s just – when you’re locked in with guys – you’ve molded three years with these guys, they’re you’re friends, and there’s really nothing else I want to do than get to Omaha right now. That’s really it.”
But the anticipation of a possible Monday deciding game between Illinois and Vanderbilt - and the fact it's the first day of the draft - makes for multiple stories not only out of Champaign's Illinois Field, but at Super Regionals elsewhere.
Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) is a beat writer for the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.
"You could legitimately have Walker Buehler, who is a pitcher for Vanderbilt on the mound, Danby Swanson as shortstop, Carson Fullmer would be sitting in the dugout, and Tyler Jay would be getting ready to throw in the late innings," he said. "(They're) all waiting to - A) play the game and try to see if they can get to the College World Series, and B) maybe keeping one eye one whoever can inform them on how the draft is going. All four guys could be picked in the top 15 picks while they're playing to keep their season going."
Sparks also profiled Swanson recently for the newspaper. Some writers say the shortstop could be the overall no. 1 draft pick
The Illini play Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday at Illinois Field. A time for a Monday game, if necessary, has not been set.