NORMAL — Illinois State freshman center fielder John Rave is developing, but he’s not where he wants to be.
Actually, the same could be said for the entire Redbird team.
Rave is part of a massive youth movement that has resulted in an uncomfortable 12-37 record entering a weekend series with Missouri Valley Conference leader Missouri State at Duffy Bass Field Thursday through Saturday.
The series begins with a 6 p.m. contest Thursday with games at 2 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday.
“Sure, we’ve struggled. But overall from the fall into the spring we’ve progressed a lot, including myself,” Rave, a Central Catholic graduate, said Wednesday. “I’ve learned a lot about myself as a player, and I’ve learned a lot about baseball this year. We’re learning. I think we’re going to grow together.”
Rave has started 46 of 49 games and ranks third on the Redbirds with a .275 batting average. He leads the team with 12 stolen bases and is second in runs scored with 29.
“The talent, for sure, has not disappointed,” ISU coach Bo Durkac said of Rave. “He’s our best stolen base threat. You don’t view him as a power hitter, but he’s got enough thump in his bat he can really drive the baseball. He’s got the combination of speed and power you look for.”
Rave was drafted in the 35th round by the Boston Red Sox last June. He passed up the opportunity to turn pro to refine his skills at ISU.
“I didn’t know if I was ready for that jump coming out of high school,” said Rave. “So I came here to ISU where we’ve got great coaches and I’ve got great teammates. When I take that step to pro ball, if I get that opportunity again, I want to be ready to jump into that.”
Rave would like to add some weight and strength to bolster both his arm from the outfield and his power at the plate.
“Defensively, he’s average right now,” Durkac said. “I work with him and motivate him daily to improve his defense and he is trying.”
After a 27-27 record in Durkac’s first season as head coach, the Redbirds set a school-record for losses during a 17-37 campaign in 2016. That record will be broken this season with ISU’s next defeat.
“This is a rough year for us and a rough year for our coaches,” said Rave, who will play for Rockford of the Northwoods League this summer. “We’ve all stuck together. We have so much talent on this team. We know in the future we can be really good. We’re all pretty excited for what’s to come.”
Durkac, who has relied heavily on freshman pitchers and has no seniors among his starting position players, calls the season “frustrating."
"There is no way to speed up that learning curve other than letting freshmen become junior and seniors," he said. "That’s why I’m so excited about the future. I think the talent is there, and we will constantly be adding to it with future recruiting classes.”
ISU director of athletics Larry Lyons confirmed Wednesday that two straight poor seasons will not cost Durkac his job.
“We have been having ongoing discussions with Bo throughout the season about adjustments that he can make now and as he plans for the program next year,” Lyons said. “We will fold those discussions into a full evaluation after the season concludes.”
Durkac said one of his promising young pitchers, freshman Brent Headrick, will not pitch any more this season or this summer because of a shoulder ailment that is not expected to require surgery. Headrick is 1-2 with a 3.79 ERA in 38 innings.
Missouri State chasing history: With a 36-14 overall record, Missouri State is 17-0 in MVC play and chasing the first perfect Valley season since Tulsa was 7-0 in 1968.
Ranked as high as No. 12 nationally, the Bears have clinched the regular-season conference championship, while the Redbirds are locked into the No. 8 spot at 1-17 in league play.
That means the teams will meet again in the first round of the MVC Tournament on Wednesday in Springfield, Mo.
Missouri State boasts a likely first round draft pick in third baseman Jake Burger, who is batting .345 with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs. Sophomore shortstop Jeremy Eierman has a .332 average to accompany 18 homers and 57 RBIs.
Normal West High School graduate Alex Jefferson is Missouri State’s left fielder and is hitting .247 with three homers and 17 RBIs while starting 47 of 50 games.