Illini Baseball Sports A Mix of Veterans And Newcomers In 2001

Junior Luke Simmons, who makes the move to third base this spring, is expected to be one of the leaders on this year's squad.
Junior Luke Simmons, who makes the move to third base this spring, is expected to be one of the leaders on this year's squad.

Jan. 19, 2001

The University of Illinois baseball team has seen more success in the past five years than in any other similar time span in the last half-century. Since 1996 Illinois has qualified for five-consecutive Big Ten Tournaments (the only Big Ten school to do so), won two conference championships (the regular season in 1998 and the tournament in 2000), qualified for two NCAA Tournaments (1998 and 2000) and come within two outs of the school?s first-ever trip to the College World Series (1998). The team has seen its finest season in school history (1998) and won more Big Ten conference games in the past five years than over any other five-year span in the program?s history. Along the way Illinois has had two first-team All-Americans, seven All-Americans, two freshman All-Americans, two Big Ten Players of the Year, two Big Ten Pitchers of the Year and 14 first-team All-Big Ten selections.

It?s now up to the 2001 Illini to keep those streaks and string of successes alive. Head Coach Richard "Itch" Jones' 11th Illinois squad has the talent to do so but will need to overcome a young infield and health questions to the pitching staff to do so. The coach is confidant they?ll do just that.

"We are going to be a team with experience in the outfield and little in the middle infield. But although the infield will be young, the kids we have there are most athletic and they'll progress quickly and should be ready for the Big Ten portion of the schedule," Jones said. "It will just be up to the older guys coming back to carry the burden at the plate until our young guys get comfortable there."

The early offensive burden Jones talks about will rest most heavily on the shoulders of two former freshman All-Americans: first baseman Andy Schutzenhofer, now a sophomore, and junior third baseman Luke Simmons. Schutzenhofer, who hit .375 a year ago with an Illinois freshman-record 87 hits and 63 RBI, is one of only two returning players league-wide from among the first-team All-Big Ten honorees of a year ago. He is the conference?s top returner in hits, runs and RBI and has the third-highest returning batting average.

Simmons, whose .386 average as a freshman was about the only freshman record Schutzenhofer didn?t break a year ago, returns after his second-consecutive second-team All-Big Ten season as the team's DH. He'll move to third base this year, bringing his .366 career average to the infield to help ease the transition for the newcomers up the middle.

Offensively, Schutzenhofer and Simmons will be joined by returning starters Brady Ballard (third-team All-Big Ten in the outfield a year ago), Joe Parenti (.314 as the starting right fielder), Rob Fischer (.272 as the starting left fielder) and catcher Jeff Gertz (.288).

The pitching staff also has some core members returning to provide leadership to a young staff. Andy Dickinson (8-3 in 2000) and Ryan Kvasnicka (3-3), who both spent the majority of the season in the Big Ten rotation, return, as does Justin Olson, who was a member of the rotation until sidelined by injury two weeks into conference play a year ago. Second-team All-Big Ten reliever Matt Vorwald, who won six games while saving eight a year ago, returns for his junior campaign and will resume his closing duties.

"Our pitching staff has both some experienced players returning and some newcomers we may have to rely on because of injuries," Jones said, "But if this group can come out and make some contribution from the beginning, they'll also get stronger as the year goes on and they gain more experience.

"How our pitching staff and infield responds will determine how far we can go this year. I have all the expectations that they will step up and get the job done and that we will have yet another successful year in the Big Ten Conference."

Jeff Gertz returns for his third season behind the plate. The senior hit .288 with 40 RBI a year ago, but it?s his defense that keeps him in the line-up day after day. Gertz threw out 23 of 49 would-be base stealers a year ago (47 percent) and he's thrown out nearly 50 percent over his two-year career at Illinois.

Sophomore Patrick Arlis, who appeared in 22 games and started four as a freshman, will challenge Gertz for playing time behind the plate. Redshirt freshmen Trevor Frederickson and Kris Kopriva round out the Illini catching corps.

Schutzenhofer, the first-team All-Big Ten first baseman, returns for his sophomore campaign. Schutzenhofer was Illinois' leading hitter a year ago, turning in a .375 average with seven home runs and a team-leading 63 RBI. Schutzenhofer hit clean-up as a true freshman for the majority of the season and he'll be counted on to carry an inexperienced infield.

Junior Luke Simmons and freshman Chad Frk will back up Schutzenhofer.

The Illini infield has three open spots this season after losing three starters to graduation or professional baseball after the 2000 campaign. Two-time All-American and former Big Ten Player of the Year D.J. Svihlik, a four-year starter at second, graduated and signed with the New York Yankees. Chris Basak, the starting shortstop, was drafted in the sixth round of the draft by the New York Mets and Craig Marquie, a four-time All-Big Ten pick at third base and Illinois' career leader in games played and total bases, graduated and signed with the Yankees after the season, leaving his position to also be filled.

Returners who will compete for spots in the infield include sophomore Ryan Lawrence, who appeared in 21 games and started four games at short last year while hitting .349 in 43 at bats, sophomore T.F. Meagher, who hit .333 in 12 appearances a year ago and junior Luke Simmons, who is working out at third base after two seasons as the team's designated hitter. Simmons, who owns a .366 career average, hit .353 a year ago with seven home runs and 43 RBI.

Redshirt freshman Brian Raymond and true freshmen Vince DiMaria, Chad Frk and Andy Hilligoss will also challenge for significant playing time at any one of the open infield slots.

The outfield, Illinois' least experienced position a year ago, is strong going into the 2001 campaign as four athletes return who saw significant playing time a year ago. The outfield is good defensively and quick on the basepaths, but needs to take over leadership at the plate after taking a back seat to the all-star infield a year ago.

Senior Rob Fischer returns in left field after hitting .272 last year and enjoying an all-star season in the Virginia Valley League over the summer.

Center field returns both senior Brady Ballard, a third-team All-Big Ten pick a year ago, and sophomore Greg Belcher. Ballard, who started in both center and right last year, hit .319 with 37 RBI. He?s also the top base stealer returning, having swiped 11 bases in 14 attempts a year ago. Belcher appeared in 29 games and started two last year. He hit .320 with two triples in 25 at bats.

Sophomore Joe Parenti returns in right field after starting 41 games a year ago. He hit .314 with five doubles and three home runs, including a game winner in extra innings over Iowa in conference play. Redshirt freshman Joffre Colbert and freshman Pat Flynn will also compete for time in the outfield.

Illinois' starting rotation takes a big blow this year with the departure of first-team All-American Jason Anderson. The New York Yankees draft pick went 14-3 last year, setting Illinois' single-season wins record en route to being named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and the MVP of the Big Ten Tournament. But the rotation has not been stripped bare, as Andy Dickinson and Ryan Kvasnicka both return.

Dickinson, a junior, posted an 8-3 record last year over eight starts. He threw three complete games and struck out 50 in 65 2/3 innings of work. Dickinson's finest performance of the season came at the Big Ten Tournament, where the lefthander handcuffed the nation's top offense in Penn State, throwing a three-hitter to defeat the Nittany Lions and send Illinois on its way to the tournament championship.

Kvasnicka, a senior, was Illinois' No. 2 starter for most of the conference season. He went 3-3 with a 4.48 ERA in 10 starts. Kvasnicka also threw three complete games, including a 4-0 shutout win over Ohio State at the Big Ten Tournament that sent Illinois to the tournament's championship game.

Junior Justin Olson, who went 1-2 with a 6.67 ERA in preseason games last year before being forced out of action just two weeks into conference play a year ago by injury is back and has starting experience.

Junior Josh Gold, a transfer from Southern Idaho Junior College, has the endurance and ability to contend for a spot in the weekend rotation.

Matt Vorwald returns to the bullpen this year after earning second-team All-Big Ten reliever honors a year ago. Vorwald, who was always a starter until an elbow injury forced him into the bullpen last year, will continue in his role as the Illini closer after finding so much success there a year ago. Vorwald is one of the most important components of the pitching staff, as he had a hand in 14 of Illinois? 41 wins.

Senior Tom Trayser may also team up with Vorwald to form a one-two punch out of the bullpen in late inning situations.

Senior Derek Throneburg, sophomores Casey Hahn, Dave Mazurek and Ryan Parks and redshirt freshmen Tim Gorski, Craig Lechowicz and Pat McAvoy will also contend for starting pitching roles during the regular weekend rotation. Pitching coach Dan Hartleb will also look for his midweek starters and middle relief corps out of this group.

Reilly Smith, a strong righthander who can locate his pitches well, will compete for a spot in the rotation this spring. Other freshmen who will get a chance this year include John Fumagalli and Jeff Paarlberg.