NORMAL — The offseason push has been on improving his team’s size, strength and speed. “Putting hay in the barn,” first-year Illinois State baseball coach Steve Holm calls it.
Has it made a difference?
The evidence points to “yes,” an important first step in Holm’s quest to change the culture of Redbird baseball.
“Bigger, stronger, faster was kind of our theme for the players in the fall. Luckily, we tested them early on,” Holm said. “When we retested them later, they instantly saw the numbers. That’s kind of how this generation learns. You have to have the data for them.”
A former major-league catcher and Purdue assistant coach, Holm is not interested in getting the Redbirds to “buy in” after going 22-30 last season and 55-107 over the past three years.
He wants belief.
“We had ‘Scout Day’ and some of these guys ran faster than they had ever run,” Holm said. “At that point, I think you really started to get the belief and not just the buy in. If they really believe it, they’re going to go all in at it.”
Among the believers is junior center fielder John Rave, a former Central Catholic star who batted .347 last year with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 49 runs batted in. A 35th-round draft choice of the Boston Red Sox coming out of high school, Rave was a second-team all-Missouri Valley Conference pick and repeated on the league’s All-Defensive Team.
“We really think we can compete this year in the Valley, but to do that we had to get bigger, faster and stronger to compete with Missouri State and DBU (Dallas Baptist),” Rave said. “We upped the intensity a little bit. Everyone came ready since day one. We got back a week early and everyone hit the ground running. It’s been all go from there.”
Rave is coming off a summer in which he batted .304 in the highly competitive Cape Cod League, an experience he said helped “prepare me to see good pitching every day.”
Among those hoping to provide solid mound work for ISU is junior left-hander Brent Headrick, who was 4-7 with a 6.40 earned run average last year.
Headrick made a team-high 15 starts, with junior right-hander Brady Huffman (1-4, 5.03) and junior left-hander Matt Walker (5-2, 5.49) making 13 each.
One of the Redbirds’ four newcomers on the pitching staff is former Normal Community and Heartland Community College right-hander Jackson Bronke.
Headrick is among 13 returning hurlers.
“As a staff, I think this winter was big for us, going home and taking care of business so when we got back all the guys were ready to go,” Headrick said. “A lot of us are more mature this year.
“We’ve had the experience. We’ve had a lot of downs. We’ve had some ups. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together, going out there this season and trying to prove something.”
That also is the goal of senior second baseman Derek Parola, who had five homers, nine doubles and 34 RBI in 49 starts a year ago. The Redbirds were 9-12 in the Missouri Valley after going 2-18 in the league in 2017 and 7-13 in 2016.
“I’d say our biggest goal (in the offseason) was just to improve the culture we came into and I think we did a great job with that,” Parola said. “Now the goal obviously is to win a little more than we have in the past. I think the work we put in so far can only lead to more success.”
ISU opens with a three-game series beginning Friday against Belmont at Nashville, Tenn. Holm was encouraged by how the team ended the fall, but said, “Things change when the lights turn on.”
“I’ve had a lot of guys who we call Fall Americans … guys who are the best player in the fall, but not necessarily an All-American during the season,” he said. “We’ll see what’s really inside people when the lights turn on.”