NORMAL — Illinois State baseball coach Bo Durkac maintains that “old wins” in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Durkac’s roster still can’t be characterized as “old,” but the progress the freshman-heavy Redbirds showed late in the 2017 season has him excited about the possibilities of the coming campaign.
“We’re young, but experienced. You don’t really see that a lot,” Durkac said. “I don’t know how good we’re going to be. But I like our ingredients, I like what we look like, I like the culture we’ve created and I like the hunger the team seems to have.”
ISU set a school record for losses in a 16-40 season a year ago. But the final week of the regular season ignited an unexpected run.
First, the Redbirds handed MVC champion Missouri State its only regular-season league loss.
Then, at the Valley Tournament, ISU won three games (including topping Missouri State twice) to advance to the championship game. The Redbirds were denied an NCAA Tournament berth in a 10-6 loss to Dallas Baptist.
“To go through a season like last year as a staff being really young and not winning a whole lot, it helped a lot actually,” said sophomore starter Brady Huffman, who picked up one of the late wins against Missouri State. “We showed signs we can pitch really well at a high level. Now we have a fire under us that we can do this and we will do this.”
Huffman and sophomore left-handers Brent Headrick and Matt Walker will likely make up ISU’s weekend rotation. Headrick was 1-2 with a 3.79 ERA last season, while Huffman was 4-5 with a 4.20 ERA.
“What we’re looking for in our young guys is to have more polish. What separates junior and seniors from freshmen is polish,” Durkac said. “It’s increasing velocity, but it’s more having better command and being able to not just throw strikes but throwing quality strikes with the fastball.”
Next in line as a starter is senior transfer Kyle Pauly, a left-hander who previously pitched at Southern Illinois and College of DuPage. Durkac sees Trevor Cross, Jeff Lindgren and Michael Sebby as his top relievers.
“It will be a bullpen by committee to start the year,” said the Redbird coach. “We’ll see who seizes that prime closer role.”
ISU returns all nine position player starters led by junior shortstop Owen Miller. The preseason all-MVC choice and major league draft prospect paced the Redbirds in batting (.325), RBIs (48), doubles (19) and runs (36) last season.
“I really like what I’ve been seeing,” Miller said. “A lot of young guys who played as freshmen last year, I really think they could have great years this year.”
ISU has two solid catchers in senior Collin Braithwaite and junior Nick Zouras. The two will alternate behind the plate and at designated hitter.
Ryan Hutchinson enters his third season as a starter, but will shift from third base to first base. Either Derek Parola or Joe Butler will be at second base with Joe Aeilts taking over at third.
Central Catholic High School graduate John Rave batted .258 with a team-leading 12 stolen bases as a freshman in 2017 and returns in center field.
A .281 hitter last season, Noah Sadler is back in right field with Bryce Grimm and Butler the top candidates in left field.
Durkac said outfielders redshirt freshman Jack Butler (Tri-Valley) and true freshman Jake McCaw (Normal Community) have made favorable preseason impressions.
Reliever Mitch Vogrin, who made 21 appearances last season with a 5.66 ERA, will miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
ISU opens its season Feb. 16 at Arkansas State.
“We’re more physical than we were last year or the year before,” said Durkac. “If we have the right tools and raw materials, it’s a matter of time before we start playing well. That’s what I’m encouraged to see.”