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NORMAL — While Joe Aeilts’ improvement during his junior year at Illinois State has been dramatic, the Redbird right fielder insists the methods to achieve those strides are anything but flashy.

“A lot of credit goes to Wally,” Aeilts said of first-year ISU hitting coach Wally Crancer. “He’s really helped me lock in on what I’m looking for at the plate and making swings count. Those things together have helped me to make some jumps this year.”

Aeilts ranks third in the Missouri Valley Conference with a .349 batting average, a sizable bump from his .268 of last season.

The Champaign native is tied for the Valley lead with nine home runs, tied with teammate John Rave for first in hits at 60 and second with 37 RBIs.

“What Wally and I worked on more is being short to the ball, being simple,” said Aeilts. “The game is hard enough as it is. Keep it simple. Hit the pitches you can hit.”

Aeilts has been a huge part of a Redbird resurgence in the first year under new head coach Steve Holm. ISU is 13-2 in April and stands at 26-15 overall and 8-1 for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.

When Holm took over, he initially noticed a quality athlete in Aeilts, who has also manned first base, second base and third base as a Redbird.

“I saw a tremendous athlete who could really run,” Holm said. “He had some strength and a swing that covers the outer half of the plate.

"Usually if you cover the outer half of the plate in college baseball, you’ll hit .300. Start adding strength and maybe the .300 goes up a little higher.”

Crancer said Aeilts was willing to learn from the beginning.

“He’s a great athlete who wants to work hard every day for the team. He’s the ultimate team guy,” said Crancer. “He puts the ball in play, he can run and he knows who he is as a player. He’s found more hits just by putting the ball in play more consistently.”

Aeilts has boosted his slugging percentage from .387 as a sophomore to .599 and his on-base percentage from .304 to .412.

“I think he did a really good job this winter of getting stronger,” Holm said. “Now some of those balls he was hitting to the right fielder or center fielder are going over their heads. With Wally, he’s done a really good job of staying in his legs and being able to drive the ball.”

Aeilts’ father, Rick, was an NFL tight end drafted by Cleveland in the eighth round in 1989.

“My dad has been my role model my whole life whether it’s in athletics or in life,” said Joe Aeilts. “He’s always been a big sports fan and loves baseball.”

A junior class that includes lineup mainstays Aeilts, Rave, Jordan Libman and Joe Butler along with pitchers Colton Johnson, Brent Headrick and Matt Walker have turned the Redbirds into an NCAA Tournament contender.

“The hard work has been there every offseason,” Aeilts said. “This offseason we really turned it up another notch in terms of preparation. We’re starting to see some of the results of that.”

Texas bound: The Redbirds head to Texas for a critical weekend series with MVC rival Dallas Baptist. After ISU at 8-1 in Valley play, Dallas Baptist, Indiana State and Evansville are tied for second at 6-3.

The Redbirds and Patriots meet Friday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at noon. Both teams are currently projected by Baseball America to make the NCAA Tournament field.

Dallas Baptist (28-12 overall) is No. 29 nationally in RPI with ISU at No. 30. The Patriots own a commanding 16-2 series advantage over the Redbirds.

Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Reporter

Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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