NORMAL — A member in good standing of Illinois State baseball’s “half a decade” club, Derek Parola considered calling it a career after the 2018 season.
Undergraduate degree in hand, Parola could have moved on with his life. Instead, the ISU second baseman has helped the Redbirds move up in the Missouri Valley Conference standings as a fifth-year senior.
“I definitely still had the love of the game,” Parola said Thursday. “With the new coaching staff, you never know what that was going to be about. But after talking to Coach (Steve) Holm this summer, it was definitely clear what the message was and I wanted to be a part of it.”
With a minimum of 11 games remaining, ISU is already within range of its first 30-win season since 2014 and sits atop the MVC at 9-3.
Tied with the Redbirds in Valley play is the same Indiana State team that will be at Duffy Bass Field this weekend for games Friday at 5 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
“It’s kind of in our hands now to take care of business,” said Parola. “It’s the first time we’ve ever been a part of that. The guys are excited to experience that.”
At 27-18 overall, ISU is 32nd nationally in RPI. Indiana State is 32-10 and 34th in the metric consulted when determining NCAA Tournament at-large berths. Dallas Baptist and Evansville are tied for third in the MVC at 8-4.
The latest NCAA Tournament projections of Baseball America list ISU, Indiana State and Dallas Baptist as part of the 64-team field.
“I don’t think anybody could have drawn it up better,” Holm said. “This is where you would be sitting, in first place with three weekends left.”
The Redbirds boast a Valley best .296 team batting average led by the foursome of right fielder Joe Aeilts (.362), first baseman Jack Butler (.330), center fielder John Rave (.328) and designated hitter Jordan Libman (.326).
Parola is batting .281 (up from .235 last season) with four home runs and is one off the team RBI lead with 36.
“Coach Holm always talks about belief rather than buy in,” said Parola. “Getting a buy in is easy. It’s that belief in what you are doing is going to work. That was the biggest thing, getting guys to believe all the offseason training we did was going to work this spring.”
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With shortstop Aidan Huggins in his first Division I season, Parola has assumed a leadership role on the Redbird infield.
“Derek has been our steady presence on the infield,” Holm said. “He’s played second base like you’re supposed to play shortstop.”
Parola is among four fifth-year seniors on the Redbirds, including relief pitchers Mitch Vogrin and Rhett Rapshus and injured first baseman Ryan Hutchinson.
“In reality, those guys have the biggest voice with the team,” Holm said of his veterans. “That first fall, once you get to know them, it really comes down to whether those guys want to listen and do the things the staff is looking to do or do they want to have some resistance.”
A 220-pound right-hander, Vogrin has made 17 appearances out of the bullpen, sporting a 2-0 record and 4.91 ERA.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs as a Redbird. I’m very happy I came back for my fifth year considering we’re winning a lot more,” said Vogrin. “We have pretty much the same guys we had last year. Coach Holm has really instilled in us we’re a very good team and we’re showing it now.”
"There is not a situation he's scared of. He'll go right at guys," Holm said of Vogrin. "That's what we've loved about him since day one. He has that bulldog look to him and the mentality."
The Redbirds face a pitching strong Indiana State team this weekend. The Sycamores’ starters have been Collin Liberatore (8-0, 2.00 ERA), Triston Polley (6-0, 2.05) and Tyler Whitbread (5-1, 3.51).
“They are pitching and throwing strikes heavy, and the offense has been just enough for them at times,” Holm said. “We’re probably the opposite. We’ve swung the bats really well, and we’re pitching just enough.”
The Redbirds will continue with their weekend rotation of Brent Headrick (5-3, 4.28), Jeff Lindgren (4-3, 5.61) and Matt Walker (3-6, 5.15).
"This is a big series," said Vogrin. "I'm sure everyone will come out ready to play."