Illini Open 2012 at Big Ten/Big East Challenge

Senior Willie Argo leads the Illini into the season-opening Big Ten/Big East Challenge this weekend.
Senior Willie Argo leads the Illini into the season-opening Big Ten/Big East Challenge this weekend.

Feb. 15, 2012

 Illinois at Big Ten/Big East Challenge
 Preview Interviews Coach Hartleb | Willie Argo | Davis Hendrickson | Justin Parr
 Tournament Info Big Ten/Big East Challenge | Tickets
 Social Media @IlliniBaseball   |  Facebook

 Game 1: Illinois (30-27)* vs. Notre Dame (23-29-1)*
 Date Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
 Time Noon CT
 Location Walter Fuller Complex | St. Petersburg, Fla.
 Stadium Address 7901 30th Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL 33710 | Directions
 Live Stats Gametracker
 Live Blog:
 Game Notes Illinois | Notre Dame
 Pitching Matchup ILL: Kevin Johnson (RHP, Jr., 2-7, 4.54 ERA*)
ND: Sean Fitzgerald (RHP, So., 1-2, 2.38 ERA*)
 Series History Illinois leads 37-24
 Last Meeting Illinois won 11-1 (Feb. 26, 2010)
 Streak Won 1
 *2011 Records and statistics | Rankings from NCBWA poll
 Game 2: Illinois (30-27)* vs. #25 Louisville (32-29)*
 Date Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012
 Time 3 p.m. CT
 Location Al Lang Stadium | St. Petersburg, Fla.
 Stadium Address 230 First St. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33701 | Directions
 Live Audio Louisville Radio (Subscription required)
 Live Stats Gametracker
 Live Blog:
 Game Notes Illinois | Louisville
 Pitching Matchup ILL: Rob McDonnell (LHP, r-Fr.)
UL: Jeff Thompson (RHP, So., 2-1, 2.75 ERA*)
 Series History Louisville leads 4-2
 Last Meeting Louisville won 1-0 (March 9, 2003)
 Streak Lost 1
 *2011 Records and statistics | Rankings from NCBWA poll

 Game 3: Illinois (30-27)* vs. #27 St. John's (36-22)*
 Date Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012
 Time 9 a.m. CT
 Location Jack Russell Stadium | St. Petersburg, Fla.
 Stadium Address 800 Phillies Dr., Clearwater, FL 33755 | Directions
 Live Stats Gametracker
 Live Blog:
 Game Notes Illinois | St. John's
 Pitching Matchup ILL: Nick Chmielewski (RHP, r-Sr., 0-2, 15.00 ERA^)
UL: James Lomangino (RHP, So.)
 Series History Tied 1-1
 Last Meeting St. John's won 6-4 (Feb. 28, 2010)
 Streak Lost 1
 *2011 Records and statistics | ^2010 Statistics | Rankings from NCBWA poll

Illinois Is...
...the reigning Big Ten regular-season & tourney champ
...4-5 in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge
...returning 373 career starts in the field among 4 players
...beginning its 133rd year of baseball

Illini Line Drives
• Illini Reload for 2012:
Following a late-season run to share the Big Ten regular-season title and win the Big Ten Tournament championship, the Fighting Illini lost five starters in the field and two weekend starting pitchers to graduation or the MLB Draft. However, Illinois returns 47.8 percent of its hits, 45.6 percent of its RBIs, 42.7 percent of its runs and 42.6 percent of its extra-base hits from a year ago. The Illini also bring back 41.4 percent of their innings pitched and 42.9 percent of their strikeouts from 2011.

• Veterans Provide Solid Foundation: Five Illini players possess most of the team's experience, with senior center fielder Willie Argo entering his fourth year in the starting lineup, and junior third baseman Brandon Hohl and junior pitcher Kevin Johnson beginning their third year as starters. Right fielder Davis Hendrickson and left fielder Justin Parr both will be in their second year starting for the Illini, but Parr is moving to the outfield after spending much of 2011 as Illinois' designated hitter. Argo, Hendrickson, Hohl and Parr combined to start 220 out of a possible 228 games in 2011, and Johnson has started 29 games over the past two seasons, including all of 2011 as Illinois' No. 1 starter. In their careers, Argo has started 155 of 163 games and Hohl has started 104 of 109.

• Young Guns Key for Illini: But the key to Illinois' season could be its young players, as projected weekend starter Rob McDonnell is a redshirt-freshman and seven players vying for spots at catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter have combined to play in only five games at Illinois - with sophomore catcher Alex Lincoln accounting for all five. In all, 18 of Illinois' 35 players have never played an inning for the Illini (11 freshmen, five redshirt-freshmen, two transfers), including 11 of the 19 pitchers on the squad.

• Argo Named Top 100 Senior by Perfect Game: Senior center fielder Willie Argo was named the No. 50 college senior in the country by Perfect Game prior to the 2012 season. Argo, who was drafted in the 43rd round of the 2011 MLB Draft by Pittsburgh and in the 49th round of the 2008 draft by Arizona, is the top Big Ten senior on PG's list.

• Argo, Hohl, Johnson Named Players to Watch: Three Illini - center fielder Willie Argo, third baseman Brandon Hohl and starting pitcher Kevin Johnson - were named players to watch by the Big Ten in the league's preseason release. Illinois also was predicted to finish sixth by the conference coaches, with fellow 2011 co-champion Michigan State picked to win the league.

• Argo Attacks Record Book: Center fielder Willie Argo, likely will leave Illinois with his named splashed all over the record book. The Davenport, Iowa, native hit the second-most home runs by a freshman in school history in 2009 and broke Illinois' single-season stolen bases record with 41 in 2010. He also started the 2010 season with 17 consecutive steals without being caught, the second-longest streak in school history. Argo begins his final campaign needing eight stolen bases to break Todd Schmitke's career record of 83 steals set from 1979-82. He also could move into the top 10 of career hits, runs, RBIs, triples, total bases and games played with a season in line with his career averages.

• Johnson Returns to Lead the Way: Junior starting pitcher Kevin Johnson is back in his spot at the front of the rotation in 2012 after serving as the Illini's ace in 2011. Johnson went 2-7 with a 4.54 ERA but tossed 103 innings with 68 strikeouts, both of which were the most by an Illinois pitcher since Drew Dickinson in 2002. The Illini are one of seven Big Ten squads to return their Friday-night starter from last season along with Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State.

• Double-Takes Common for Parrs, Illini: For the first time since 1998, the Orange and Blue have a set of twins on the roster in Justin and Jordan Parr. Justin won the Big Ten batting title in 2011 with a .411 average in conference games as Illinois' starter at designated hitter, while Jordan transferred from Parkland College during the summer. Although they are identical twins, their eligibility is different because Jordan redshirted his first season at Parkland. He has sophomore standing in 2012, while Justin is a junior.

Illini Open Season at Big Ten/Big East Challenge
For the fourth-straight year, the Fighting Illini open the season at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge in the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area of Florida. Illinois is 4-5 all-time at the event, going 2-1 in 2009 and 1-2 each of the past two seasons. The Illini are 3-5 against Big East teams at the Challenge, with Illinois' other win in the event coming against Iowa in 2009.

Illinois opens the season against Notre Dame for the second time in the last three years. The Illini and Fighting Irish will square off at the Walter Fuller Complex, the former spring training facility of the Tampa Bay Rays. Illinois beat Notre Dame 11-1 in the 2010 opener. The Orange and Blue then take on Louisville - which was ranked No. 25 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association - on Saturday at Jack Russell Stadium, the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies from 1955-2003. Illinois wraps up the challenge by facing No. 27 St. John's on Sunday at Al Lang Field, the spring training home of five Major League teams throughout history and most recently the Tampa Bay Rays from 1998-2008.

The Big Ten won the first Challenge in 2009, 15-9, but the Big East fought back with a 17-13 victory in the 2010 event and a 14-10 triumph in 2011.

Illini Against Challenge Field
The Fighting Illini hold a 37-24 lead in the all-time series with Notre Dame and won the last meeting between the teams, 11-1, on Feb. 26, 2010 - that year's season-opener. Illinois leads the all-time series with Louisville, 4-2, but lost the last meeting with the Cardinals, 1-0, on March 9, 2003. The all-time series with St. John's is tied, 1-1, with the Red Storm winning the most recent meeting, 6-4, in the 2010 Big Ten/Big East Challenge.

Illini Keep on Running
The Illini once again were one of the most explosive teams in the nation on the basepaths in 2011, leading the Big Ten with 98 stolen bases and ranking 19th nationally with 1.72 steals per game. Illinois narrowly missed reaching 100 steals for the fourth time in the last five years but had four players with 15 or more steals. However, only Willie Argo, who stole a team-high 25-of-35 bases last season, returns in 2012.

Pair of Aces Reunite on UI Staff
Former Illinois All-American pitcher Drew Dickinson, who served as Illinois' volunteer assistant coach in 2009 and 2011, was named the Illini's pitching coach on Aug. 3, 2011, and fellow former Illini All-American Jason Anderson joined the staff as a volunteer assistant on Aug. 9. The duo served as bookends of Illinois' weekend rotation for the last half of the 2000 season, with Anderson pitching on Friday and Dickinson on Sunday, largely because of the Big Ten's four-game series format that featured nine-inning games on those days and two seven-inning games on Saturday.

They led Illinois to a 41-23 overall record in 2000, a Big Ten Tournament championship and an appearance in the NCAA Clemson Regional that season, with Anderson earning ABCA first-team All-America honors. They also helped accomplished one of the more memorable pitching feats in school history in the Big Ten Tournament, as the Illini staff threw five consecutive complete games on the way to the tournament title, including complete-game victories by Anderson in the first and last games of the tournament.

*Complete Big Ten/Big East Challenge notes available in the above PDF file