Illinois’ Recruiting Class Ranked No. 24 by Baseball America

Champaign, Ill. –The Illinois baseball program’s recruiting class, the class that arrived on campus in August, is the 24th-best in the nation according to Baseball America, the publication announced Wednesday. Illinois is the only Big Ten program ranked and it is the first time in program history an Illini recruiting class has been ranked in the top 25.

“This is probably one of the top classes that we’ve had in my tenure,” head coach Dan Hartleb said during his Signing Day press conference in November. “It’s pitching heavy, which is so important in the game of baseball. And we met a lot of needs as far as athletes and position players.”

Two student-athletes were picked in the 2018 MLB Draft before choosing to honor their commitments to Illinois. Catcher Jacob Campbell was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 36th round and pitcher Aidan Maldonado was picked two rounds later by the Milwaukee Brewers. Both were in Baseball America’s top 300 prospects and were considered top 5-10 round talents at the conclusion of their senior years’ of high school before falling in the draft due to sign ability.

Pitcher Garrett Acton was also drafted out of high school in 2016 to make it three of 10 newcomers that have been selected by MLB clubs. Acton is one of three junior college pitching signees that are set to help the staff.

“These are some of the higher rated kids that we’ve had,” said Hartleb. “A lot of these players had committed or were on our radar from back in 2015 year.”

Illinois had an unprecedented season in 2015, winning 50 games and the NCAA Champaign Regional on the way to hosting the program’s first ever Super Regional. The Illini also had back-to-back seasons with a first-round pick in 2015 (Tyler Jay) and 2016 (Cody Sedlock) and the 2018 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Year in Bren Spillane, who became Illinois’ highest-ever drafted position player in June.

Illinois narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament last year after finishing fourth in the Big Ten and advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. The recruiting class combined with a solid core of returners has Illinois poised for an exciting season in 2019.

“I’m really excited about this group,” said Hartleb. “It meets what we’ve always tried to do as far as good student-athletes and guys that will try to work hard and get better.”

The best recruiting classes from 2010-2014

There’s still a few Big Ten programs yet to start their fall practice season. But for most, new faces are mixing with returning places as rosters start to take shape with the 2019 season in mind.

As the talent across the Big Ten continues to get better and deep year over year, many freshmen will arrive to campus and put on their school’s colors with prodigious accolades from their prep days, with a few having the honor of being selected in the MLB Draft. The past of a freshman makes it easier to fill out bios and for outside publications to compile all of the freshmen who compose a recruiting class, list them next to each other, and proclaim who has the best recruiting class. But when the time comes to step into the batter’s box or toe the rubber, what was done in high school means little.

Instead, we think it’s best to allow a recruiting to have their four-year window on campus come to pass, in order to compare and determine who had the best. Here, before fall practice has commenced throughout the conference, and a sense of who may be a standout can fully form, 10 Innings looks at the top recruiting class over the last five years in the Big Ten.

To note, more emphasis was placed on individual success, believing that while one recruiting class can drastically change the fortunes of a program, the success of a team in any given year is made up of four recruiting classes. Also, recruiting classes were based on who was a freshman on campus in the fall of their high school graduating year. This would, for example, exclude considering Scott Donley as a part of Indiana’s class of 2011, as he was a transfer from Virginia Tech. Finally, the first classes for Maryland and Rutgers to have spent all four years in the Big Ten would have been 2014, four-year graduates of this past spring.

So with history on our side which program had the top recruiting class over the last five years?

2010- Indiana

Key players: Dustin DeMuth, Joey DeNato, Ryan Halstead, Aaron Slegers

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 153-82 overall, 65-31 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: DeNato. 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: DeMuth, DeNato, Halstead. 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Slegers. 2014 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: DeNato.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 7

Highest draft pick: Slegers, fifth round, 140th overall, 2013.

Why them? This class was the foundation of teams that helped Indiana lead the change in conversation regarding Big Ten baseball. The following year’s recruiting class drew the headlines, covered magazines and have two MLBers, but this is the class that was necessary to take Indiana into college baseball’s upper echelon. A four-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, holding the school record for innings, strikeouts and wins. Slegers’ 2013 campaign was quietly dominant. DeMuth litters the Indiana record book, and Halstead was a rock of a reliever at the back of the IU bullpen for their two regional clubs. Arriving to campus two years after Indiana broke through and won the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, this group pushed IU over the top.

 

2011- Indiana

Key players: Kyle Hart, Luke Harrison, Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2015 NCAA Tournament. 158-81 overall, 66-28 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Travis. 2012 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Chad Clark, Hart, Schwarber, Chris Sujka, Travis. 2013 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Travis. 2013 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Schwarber, Travis. 2014 Big Ten Player of the Year: Travis. 2014 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Schwarber.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 5

Highest draft pick: Schwarber, first round, fourth overall, 2014.

Why them? The Bash Brothers. What hasn’t been said of the impact that Schwarber and Travis had on Indiana, Big Ten and college baseball? A rival coach called Schwarber a generational talent, one you see every 20-25 years, Travis a once-a-decade player. Where DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, quite the argument can be made that Hart is the second-best. Appearing in 87 games, Harrison pitched 167 innings to the tune of a 2.86 ERA and 15-4 record. While Schwarber and Travis were ascending the ranks in the minors in 2015, Harrison and Hart were  key factors in Indiana’s transition between head coaches Tracy Smith and Chris Lemonis, making sure Indiana’s two-year run wasn’t a blip on the radar, but the start of a new day for IU baseball.

 

2012- Illinois

Key players: Kevin Duchene, Jason Goldstein, Tyler Jay, Adam Walton

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013 NCAA Tournament. 2015 Big Ten champions. 2015 National Seed. 2015 Champaign Regional champions. 145-74-1 overall, 64-30 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Duchene. 2013 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Duchene, Goldstein. 2015 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Jay. 2014 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Jay.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 4

Highest draft pick: Jay, first round, sixth overall, 2015.

Why them? If Indiana forced a different discussion around Big Ten baseball, this recruiting class of Illini helped cement the change in perception. After helping Illinois to the Nashville Regional in 2013, being left on the outside of the 2014 NCAA Tournament helped fuel the most dominant showing by a team in Big Ten play the following year. As upperclassmen, the class helped Dan Hartleb’s team to a school-record 27-game winning streak, and a 21-1 Big Ten record in 2015. The regular season ended with the Illini were earning the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. From their first spring, Duchene was a key starter, Jay a lights-out receiver and Goldstein a rock behind the plate. Walton gave this recruiting class its fourth All-Big Ten first-team selection in 2015, with strong two-way play at short.

 

2013- Ohio State

Key players: Ronnie Dawson, Travis Lakins, Troy Montgomery, Tanner Tully

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 127-102 overall. 46-50 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Tully. 2014 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Dawson, Tully. 2016 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Dawson.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 2

Highest draft pick: Dawson, second round, 62nd overall, 2016.

Why them? The toughest class to pick, the individual star power between Dawson, Montgomery, Lakins and Tully helped pushed this class over Nebraska’s 2013 recruiting class. The Husker did appear in three NCAA Tournaments, 2014, 2016-17, and won the Big Ten, topping Ohio State’s one regional and tournament title. But of Nebraska’s 11 freshmen in the fall of 2013, there were only a combined four All-Big Ten selections, no first-team picks, only five of the 11 made significant contributions over their career. Dawson and Tully were both All-Big Ten second-team picks as freshmen in 2014, before earning first-team nods in 2016, while Montgomery was a second-team selection in 2015. Lakins was a sixth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2015.

 

2014- Minnesota

Key players: Micah Coffey, Lucas Gilbreath, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 2018 Big Ten champions. 2018 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2018 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2018 Minneapolis Regional Champions. 137-88 overall, 58-34 in Big Ten.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 1

Highest draft pick: Gilbreath, seventh round, 216th overall.

Why them? The class didn’t have a star like Schwarber, Travis, or Dawson, but collectively they were steady contributors, year after year. Gilbreath is responsible for the lone All-Big Ten first-team selection in the recruiting class, tabbed as one of the three best Big Ten pitchers in 2017. But Coffey was a three-time All-Big Ten pick, a second-team selection in each of his final three seasons, with Hanson earning third-team praise in 2016, before Pettersen did in 2018. The last three years of their time in Minnesota stands against any three-year period for any Big Ten program over the last 25 years, capping their career with winning the Minneapolis Regional, advancing the program to its first super regional appearance.

The Big Ten’s newest assistants

The transition from the summer offseason to the fall practice season isn’t complete without a rundown of new faces. Yes, the Big Ten is welcoming another talented freshman class, headlined by several players saying no to professional organizations, but they will also be new faces in the in the coaches’ boxes and in the dugout as part of the coaching staff.

With an entirely new staff in Bloomington as head coach Jeff Mercer leads the Hoosiers, to two new assistants up the road in West Lafayette under Mark Wasikowski, rounded out by promotions in Columbus and Minneapolis, heres a look at the new full-time assistants coaches in the Big Ten.

Read more

Ten thoughts from the summer II

It’s time to close the book on summer thoughts, news and notes.

Here’s the second part of ten thoughts from the summer, as we get ready to shift gears to fall practices and the 2019 season.

Top prospects heading to campus

The MLB Draft was pretty kind to Big Ten programs this year. Across the conference, from Minnesota to New Jersey, top prep players with pledges to Big Ten programs spurned professional overtures.

A few players did sign a contact. Michigan lost Drew Rom, a Kentucky prep left-handed pitcher, to the Baltimore Orioles, after the American League organization picked him in the fourth round. Ohio State saw recruit Keegan Fish, a catcher and 13th-round pick from southwest Ohio, sign with the Miami Marlins. And Iowa-signee Korry Howell, a JUCO transfer picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 12th round.

But more players who were the highlights of respective recruiting classes will arrive on campus.

A few noteworthy players:

Illinois

Catcher Jacob Campbell- 36th round, Chicago Cubs

RHP Aidan Maldonando- 38th round, Milwaukee Brewers

Michigan

RHP Steven Hajjar- 21st round, Brewers

Michigan State

OF Zaid Walker- 36th round, Cincinnati Reds

Nebraska

SS/RHP Spencer Schwellenbach- 34th round, Cleveland Indians

Rutgers

C- Peter Serruto- 22nd round, Reds

Worth noting, a player picked in the 30th+ rounds may not seem overly impressive, outside of the impressiveness of being draft in the first place, but each of the above player’s talent merited being selected earlier. They were drafted in the final quarter of the draft due to their respective commitments to their school. Professional clubs viewed them as unlikely to sign, but the talent each possessed warranted selecting them, just in case there was a change of heart, or a signing bonus of $125,000, the maximum a club can offer without it counting against its allotted pool to sign players drafted in the first 10 rounds, would be a enough.

Prep Baseball Report ranks Maldonado, Schwellenbach and Walker the respective number two players in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, players who have a chance to standout on campus over the next three years before their time comes again to be picked by a professional club.

Midwest vs. West

Players like Hajjar and Serruo heading to campus is another example of the Big Ten providing a great product on the field, alongside the world-class education the student-athletes receive. How good that product is might surprise the casual fan, but more and more there is proof the Big Ten is an elite baseball conference.

I remember five years ago, after his first season in Ann Arbor, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich told me there was no reason the Big Ten would not only be a true Power 5 conference in baseball, but would be on par, if not better than the Pac-12 and Big XII. The depth of the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, along with the geographic advantage will likely have those two be 1-2 in some order for the foreseeable future. But Bakich had no doubt the Midwest could be the Big Ten’s and level to those on the Pacific coast.

Looking at NCAA Tournament participants, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 17 teams in a regional, with the Pac-12 one ahead at 18. Last year, the Big Ten and Pac-12 split 24 regular season games.

The Pac-12 has done a better job of advancing teams through the NCAA Tournament, and of course have the reigning national champion in Oregon State, who knocked out Minnesota in the Corvallis Regional, but not before the Gophers twice beat UCLA to win the Minneapolis Regional. Now, as schedules begin to trickle out, the 2019 season will offer more opportunities for to two conferences with Rose Bowl ties to square off on the mind.

In touching base with coaches around the conference, what’s known so far in Big Ten-Pac 12 showdowns:

Arizona will travel to Penn State during the final weekend of the regular season, the start of a home-and-home series which has Penn State traveling to Tucson in 2020.

Michigan State has a three-game series at Arizona State, followed by a midweek game at Arizona.

Minnesota will see Oregon State in back-to-back weekends to open the season, the two participating in a pair of tournaments.

Michigan will participate in the Dodger Stadium/Dodgertown College Baseball Classic with USC, UCLA and Arizona. Two years ago the Wolverines were in the field with USC, UCLA and San Diego.

Lengthy droughts continue for Michigan and Ohio State

I started blogging on Big Ten baseball matters 10 years ago, taking over the Ohio State-centric Buckeye Nine. One, I have no idea how that turned into this. Two, it’s a bit scary to think a decade has passed.

Nonetheless, to say the Big Ten of 2018 is not the Big Ten of 2008 is an understatement. Forget recruits, facilities, head coach salaries, just look who has won the Big Ten this decade.

Since 2010, Minnesota has three titles (2010, 2016, 2018) and Illinois has two (2011, 2015). Those two have been historically strong programs, their championships would cause someone to bat an eye in 2008. But Michigan State (2011), Purdue (2012), Indiana (2013-14), Nebraska, hello realignment, (2017) certainly would. But perhaps more than who has won the conference crown is who hasn’t.

The 2019 season will be the ten-year mark since the Buckeyes last won the Big Ten. But even then, they will have a more recent championship than their arch-rival, Michigan last winning the conference championship in 2008. To know just how rare this is, the last time neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a Big Ten championship in a nine-year window would be 1908-1916. A period when the University of Chicago found themselves Big Ten baseball champs.

For the conference as a whole, it’s a good thing the Big Ten isn’t dominated by Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, as was the case for four decades from 1980-2010. More teams winning means more depth, more depth means more teams in the NCAA Tournament, more teams in the NCAA Tournament increases the odds of having a representative in Omaha.

But it is a bit surprising two of collegiate athletics most recognizable names, programs with storied histories, have gone so long without winning the conference.

Wisconsin baseball isn’t coming back

With the team they have returning, losing only one underclassman to the draft, many view Michigan as a preseason Big Ten favorite, a club ready to end that aforementioned drought. While certainly possible, if not probably, we know for certain one Big Ten institution that’s not winning a baseball championship any time soon: Wisconsin.

The baseball-less Badgers are the lone Big Ten university without a varsity baseball program. As Big Ten baseball continues to make strides, as well as Wisconsin producing top baseball talent (Campbell is a Wisconsin native, as was Minnesota All-American shortstop Terrin Vavra), it’s entertaining to think is the time coming for Wisconsin to revive its baseball program.

I don’t think it’s happening.

In June, the Detroit News revealed the University of Michigan will receive $52.1 million in Big Ten conference distributions, stemming from the television rights the conference has with ABC/ESPN, FOX, and its own Big Ten Network.

There would be Title IX matters to resolve in terms of scholarship equality between female and male students, as well as figuring out where games will be played. But if living in a day and age where Big Ten universities are receiving more than $50 million a year from television rights doesn’t create the landscape for Wisconsin to bring back a program, one that many believe would have more than a shot to compete for conference championships and regional bids when brought back, I can’t see when the time will be right.

Joe Healy’s appreciated work

Wrapping up everything that crossed my mind over the summer, I cannot go without shining a light on the work done by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy and his podcast series, especially in the absence of myself producing any content. Throughout the summer, Healy spoke to people throughout the media, often beat writers, to dig into ongoings regarding programs around the country. Many of Healy’s podcast covered Big Ten teams, and here you can listen to insights, news and opinion on:

Indiana

Iowa

Nebraska

Purdue

Joe was the lone national writer to cover the Big Ten Tournament this past year, and is a great reference and source for news and content covering the Big Ten.

Purdue Baseball’s 2019 Schedule Announced

West Lafayette, Ind. –Headlined by another home-heavy stretch run, 24 dates at Alexander Field highlight Purdue baseball’s 2019 schedule unveiled by head coach Mark Wasikowski.

The Boilermakers again have five home weekends on the slate, including a non-conference series vs. Southeast Missouri State as part of a nine-game homestand from April 23 to May 7. Penn State (March 29-31), Iowa (April 12-14), Michigan State (May 3-5) and Ohio State (May 16-18) also visit Alexander Field for Big Ten weekends.

Purdue will enter the 2019 campaign riding a 13-game home win streak that dates back to April 24. Only North Carolina (18) and Stetson (17) will have longer active home win streaks going into 2019. The home opener at Alexander Field is set for March 12 vs. Milwaukee.

From April 23 through the May 18 regular-season finale, the Boilermakers are scheduled to play 13 of their 16 games at home. The only road trip during that stretch is a short one to Champaign-Urbana for a weekend series at Illinois (May 10-12). Purdue has not played at Illinois Field since April 2015, making it the longest active stretch without visiting a Big Ten ballpark.

Weekend series at fellow 2018 NCAA Regional qualifiers Southern Miss (Feb. 15-17), Texas (Feb. 22-24) and Oral Roberts (March 1-3) headline the non-conference schedule. Texas advanced to the College World Series after winning the Big 12 Conference regular-season title. Southern Miss and Oral Roberts both won their league’s regular-season and tournament titles.

Three trips to the state of Nebraska are in the mix for the Boilermakers this spring. Along with the Big Ten Tournament returning to TD Ameritrade Ballpark in Omaha, Purdue is also scheduled to play at the home of the College World Series when it visits Creighton for a non-conference series from March 8 to 10. The Boilermakers’ late-season surge this past spring included three straight wins in Omaha as part of a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Meanwhile, after not playing Nebraska during the regular season each of the last two years, Purdue is scheduled to visit Haymarket Park in Lincoln (April 5-7) for the first time since May 2015.

Big Ten play opens the weekend of March 22 to 24, with the Boilermakers visiting Northwestern. The two short conference trips to the league’s Land of Lincoln contingent provide a nice balance with the longer trips to the eastern (Rutgers, April 19-21) and western (Nebraska) edges of the league.

While a Big Ten weekend series vs. Indiana is not part of the conference schedule this year, the rivals will square off for a non-conference midweek game again. The April 10 matchup will be played in Bloomington this season.

In-state opponents Valparaiso, Indiana State, Butler, Purdue Fort Wayne and Ball State all visit Alexander Field for midweek action. Xavier is also back on the schedule for the first time since a six-year midweek series ended in 2004. The Musketeers visit West Lafayette on May 14.

The Boilermakers’ spring break series at Jacksonville State (March 15-17) will be played at the newly renovated Rudy Abbott Field at Jim Case Stadium in Alabama. Jax State is an Ohio Valley Conference rival of Southeast Missouri, which visits Alexander Field in April. Purdue coaches Greg Goff and Wasikowski were assistant coaches together at SEMO in the late 1990s.

With first-time opponent Milwaukee on the schedule this year, it is believed to be Purdue’s first game against a team from the state of Wisconsin since UW Madison discontinued its program following the 1991 campaign.

A full list of gameday promotions and special dates at Alexander Field will be released in February or early March. Feb. 15 is the national opening day of the 2019 college baseball season.

SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN
• Home Games: 24
• Road Games: 32

• Big Ten Home: Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State
• Big Ten Road: Northwestern, Nebraska, Rutgers, Illinois
• Big Ten Non-Play: Indiana*, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota
• Big Ten Tournament: May 22 to 26 (TD Ameritrade Park – Omaha, Nebraska)

• Season-Opening Series: at Southern Miss
• Early 4-Game Weekend Series: at Texas and at Oral Roberts (Saturday Doubleheaders)
• Spring Break: 3-game series at Creighton, back in Indiana for midweek games vs. Milwaukee and Indiana State, 3-game series at Jacksonville State
• Non-Conference vs. Indiana: April 10 in Bloomington
• 3 Trips to Nebraska: March 8-10 at Creighton, April 5-7 at Nebraska, May 22-26 at B1G Tournament in Omaha
• Midweek: Ball State (2), Indiana State (2), Indiana, Butler, Xavier, Milwaukee, Bowling Green, Valparaiso, Purdue Fort Wayne, Chicago State
• Long Homestand: Purdue plays 9 straight games at Alexander Field from April 23 through May 7, hosting Southeast Missouri and Michigan State for weekend series during that stretch

• 2018 NCAA Tournament Qualifiers: Southern Miss, Texas, Oral Roberts, Indiana, Ohio State
• First-Time Foes: Milwaukee, Bowling Green
• Been a While: There are four opponents on the schedule that Purdue has not played in at least 12 years – Creighton (1989), Xavier (2004), Jacksonville State (2004), Texas (2005)
• Purdue has not played at Illinois (April 11-13) or Nebraska (May 9-11) since 2015
• Iowa (April 3-5) and Penn State (May 14-16) have not played at Alexander Field since 2015
• The Boilermakers have not played Michigan State since April 2016

Ten thoughts from the summer I

With Labor Day behind us, summer has unofficially come to an end. While temperatures throughout the Midwest have been more typical of those seen in the days following Independence Day, students at Big Ten universities have returned to campus and conference baseball teams have begun fall practice.

As programs around the country insert the keys into the ignition and start the engine, in preparation of taking on the road to Omaha, 10 Innings’ Chris Webb puts a bow on summer with the first five of 10 thoughts and observations from news and trends that developed over the summer.

An Indiana man comes home

On July 2, Indiana named Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer the 25th head coach in program history. Mercer filled the vacancy created when Mississippi State tabbed former Hoosier head coach Chris Lemonis as their head coach, eight days prior. Lemonis’ tenure in Bloomington lasted four seasons, creating an situation where IU will be on its third head coach in six seasons in 2019, even though the program has been one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.

Lemonis followed Tracy Smith who left after nine years to try to revive the once dominant Arizona State program. But if Indiana continues the success first established by Smith and continued by Lemonis, the Hoosiers have appeared in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, there shouldn’t be any need for Indiana to be in search over another coach in the near future; Mercer is home.

A native of Bargersville, Indiana, Mercer guided Wright State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances during the first two years of his head coaching career. Continuing the high level of success at the Dayton, Ohio-based program, first established by current Penn State head coach Rob Cooper, Mercer was emerging as one of college baseball’s bright young coaches. But more importantly than Mercer budding as a promising coach, is Mercer viewing Bloomington as home. To him, there is no next step, no call from a Pac-12 nor Southeastern conference program will pull him from the Hoosier State as happened to his predecessors. Calling the Indiana position his dream job, Mercer is ready to retire as a Hoosier.

“I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” said Mercer in the press release of his hiring. And to talk to Mercer, it’s quick to learn those words weren’t just the correct answer to go on-record with. Leading the Indiana program, one his father was an assistant coach at from 1988-1989, is where his career goals have been aimed towards and now heart and mind is fully vested in.

This should be welcomed by IU faithful, if not demanded. Lemonis, with his hand in helping nearby Louisville develop into a regional program, was the perfect fit to succeed Smith and keep Indiana at a high-level. The seemingly seamless transition that took place four years ago shouldn’t be taken for granted, each coach has his own identity and belief in how a program should be ran and the culture that’s created. All signs point to Mercer be just as much of a slam dunk hire as Lemonis, and for Indiana players, administrators and fans alike, this should be the last hire of a head baseball coach for the foreseeable future.

As Mercer told me this summer, “it wouldn’t matter if the New York Yankees are calling, I’m saying no, this is where I want to be for the next 25 years.”

Iowa personifies the conference-wide investment in baseball

There could have been a second Big Ten program in need of a new head coach if it wasn’t for the commitment to keep Rick Heller in place by Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and his department. Pursued by Kansas State, Heller turned down an offer to lead the Wildcats in June, to stay at Iowa.

Announced on Aug. 24, with Heller’s loyalty to the Hawkeyes came a restructured contract and a pay raise. A bump in base salary to $325,000 annually, from $262,000, for the 2018-2019 season, then to $341,000, from $275,000, the next year, on a contract that runs through the 2024 season. Crossing the $300,000-threshold placed Heller among the top five highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten, a thought unfathomable not too long about. But in five seasons in Iowa City, Heller has average a hair shy of 35 wins, collecting 173 victories, for a program that had gone 24 seasons since its last 35-win campaign, with only five such years in the program’s annuals prior to Heller’s arrival.

But ponying up additional pennies to keep Heller in place is only a part of the commitment Iowa has thrown baseball’s way, a reflection of an increase in attention Big Ten programs are experiencing all over the conference. Duane Banks Field has undergone renovations, with more plans on the table to give the grandstands a makeover. Iowa has been able to create the necessary pool for assistant coach compensation in order to flank Heller with strong assistant coaches, coaches that are active in recruiting as well as taking a forward-thinking approach on technology and analytics in baseball.

If Iowa’s two regional trips since 2015 isn’t enough to show the Big Ten of yesteryear is a distant memory, the steps took to bring Iowa to national prominence, mirror throughout the conference, should leave one with no doubt.

Max Meyer Mania continues

Helping Minnesota to its first super regional appearance, and a top ten final ranking, right-handed pitcher Max Meyer compiled one of the most decorated freshman seasons in recent Big Ten history. Tying Minnesota’s single-season saves record with 16, next to a 2.03 ERA, the standout at the back of the Gopher bullpen received All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com, a third-team selection on each all-star rundown. Collegiate Baseball, Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association picked the Woodbury, Minn. product as a first-team Freshman All-American, with Collegiate Baseball naming Meyer the Freshman Relief Pitcher of the Year. Closing to home, Meyer was the first-team All-Big Ten selection at reliever.

Those accolades alone would not only fill a trophy case, but maker Meyer one of the nation’s top pitchers heading into the 2019 seasons. But what Meyer did over the summer as an encore to his freshman season places him in the elite of the elite among college baseball pitchers.

One of six freshmen named to the 26-member USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, on a team littered with the best talent from coast to coast, Meyer’s performance took a backseat to none this summer. Helping Team USA to a 12-3 showing, Meyer appeared in eight games, saving seven of USA’s victories. Although he only pitched eight innings, the ninth-most on the team, Meyer’s 15 strikeouts paced all USA pitchers. Off five hits and four walks, Meyer allowed three earned runs for a 3.38 ERA.

The last Big Ten pitcher to don the Red, White and Blue for the Collegiate National Team was Maryland right-handed Mike Shawaryn during the summer of 2016. There hasn’t been a Big Ten player play for Team USA as a freshman in at least a decade.

And one last note on Meyer, he was recruited to Minnesota as a two-way player, but the depth of the Gophers in the field and at the plate relegated him to just 30 at-bats in 2018. With program stalwarts such as Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson and Luke Pettersen lost to graduation, and the drafting of shortstop Terrin Vavra, the plan is for Meyer to go all-in as a two-way player, where the Minnesota staff believes he’s capable of just as much production at the plate as on the mound.

Ty McDevitt’s more-than-deserved promotion

But, what if I said Meyer wasn’t even the most decorated Minnesota freshman pitcher? That could be true, as classmate Patrick Fredrickson was picked as Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, the first freshman to win the honor, alongside being names conference freshman of the year, National Freshman Pitcher of the Year by both Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA, was on every Freshman All-America team, and the ABCA named him a first-team All-American and D1Baseball.com a third-team pick.

Clearly, in Fredrickson and Meyer Minnesota has a two-headed monster every coach in the country would sign up for, potentially the best tandem of rising sophomore righties in the country. But Minnesota’s depth in the freshman class extends to Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen, a collection of six pitchers poised to be the foundation of a program looking to continue the run of success that has saw the program win two of the last three Big Ten championships.

As stout as Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class was on the mound, nearly as impressive is how quickly the group collective got up to speed and started producing, with none of the six from a location south of Omaha, all lead by a volunteer coach.

The structure of Minnesota’s coaching staff for the last two years saw Rob Fornasiere as the top assistant to John Anderson, serving as third base coach and handling a lot of the in-game strategy. Pat Casey has served as Minnesota’s hitting coach and dominant force on the recruiting trail, elevated to a full-time position after the passing of longtime pitching coach Todd Oakes. That left the volunteer role to handle the pitching duties, which former Minnesota pitcher Ty McDevitt has done in a lights out manner. Minnesota’s 3.18 team ERA in 2018 was a full run better than the 4.19 mark in 2017, even though Minnesota had to replace their ace and closer.

In the run-up to Minnesota’s memorable postseason, it was announced Fornasiere was retiring at the end of the season. With nary a negative word to be said about him as a person or coach, Fornasiere will be missed in the Gopher program, Minnesota wouldn’t be where they are without him. But it was as perfect of timing as possible for a position to open. In Anderson elevating McDevitt to be Minnesota’s third full-time coach, one of college baseball’s brightest young pitching minds will stay home and work to keep Minnesota among national prominence.

Coaching staffs continue to expand

With Indiana welcoming Mercer, Iowa keeping Heller, and McDevitt moving into a full-time role, coaching news carried most of the summer action. But, increasingly, staff news is no longer just pertains to a head coach, two full-time assistants and a volunteer assistant.

A look at news around the Big Ten this summer saw Illinois and Penn State add a director of operations positions, with Sean Moore, former Iowa volunteer, having an additional title of player development next to his director of operations position for the Nittany Lions. Now all programs except Michigan State have a director of operations position, when no program did before Nebraska joined the conference in 2012.

Mercer won’t only have a director of operations on his first staff, but former Major League veteran Scott Rolen will be Indiana’s Director of Player Development. Ohio State saw their volunteer video coordinator, Matt Angle, move into a full-time role, then realigned the role to be a control position in hiring former Buckeye and all-conference infielder Kirby Pellant.  Michigan has a standalone video coordinator position, while a year ago Rutgers introduced the position of Director of Player Development to the Scarlet Knight program.

Just as the Big Ten has seen head coach salaries have doubled on average over the last decade and increases in assistant coach salary pools to attract and retain top assistants, the sizes of Big Ten baseball staffs continue to swell, showing more and more teams are trying to find that edge to be a perennial winner.

Pellant, Riga Added to Ohio State Baseball Staff

Columbus, Ohio– Head coach Greg Beals announced the addition of former Buckeyes Kirby Pellant and Ryan Riga to the Ohio State baseball staff Wednesday. Pellant, who played two seasons for the Buckeyes from 2012-13, will serve as the quality control coordinator. Riga, who played from 2013-15, will be the student assistant coach for the 2018-19 campaign.

“I am very excited to have Kirby and Ryan back with the program,” Beals said. “They were great competitors as Buckeyes, went on to play professionally where they gained a great deal of experience. I look forward to their competitive nature and experience making an impact on Ohio State baseball once again.”

Pellant returns to the program after being the team’s student assistant coach during the 2015 campaign. A 2013 first team All-Big Ten selection, Pellant batted .301 during his senior season with 20 runs scored, five doubles, three triples, two home runs, 15 RBI and 11 walks. He also had a. 991 fielding percentage in the Buckeye infield. In two seasons, Pellant swiped 43 stolen bases, which ranks 11th in program history. His 31 stolen bases during the 2012 season ranks sixth in the OSU record book. Pellant was drafted in the 26th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and played in 46 professional games. Pellant, a native of Chandler, Ariz., graduated from Ohio State in 2015 with a degree in criminology.

“I’m excited to be back home at my alma mater,” Pellant said. “I can’t thank Coach Beals enough for giving me the opportunity to get my foot in the door with this program and elite level of competition.”

Riga, a Buckeye pitcher from 2013-15, returns to campus as a student assistant coach, while finishing his degree in sociology. Riga made 55 appearances on the mound with 26 starts for the Buckeyes. He posted a 12-8 record with a 3.39 career ERA and struck out 164 hitters in 212.2 innings of work. As a senior, Riga collected a 3.32 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 97.2 innings of work. Riga, from Fairfield, Ohio, is the record holder for the program’s scoreless innings streak set during his senior season (30.2 IP). He was drafted in the 13th round by the Chicago White Sox and made 94 appearances in three professional seasons.

“I’m excited and thankful to be back wearing the Scarlet and Gray again,” Riga said. “I jumped on this opportunity to become part of the staff while finishing up my degree the moment it was offered. To be a part of the development of this team and pitching staff on a daily basis is incredible.”

Spartans Rally Comes Up Short In Losing To Lugnuts

Lansing, Mich. — Michigan State baseball’s late-inning rally came up short in the 12th annual Crosstown Showdown Presented by Auto-Owners Insurance, falling to the Lansing Lugnuts, 6-4, on Tuesday night at a hot and humid Cooley Law School Stadium. A spirited crowd of 6,388 was on hand to watch the annual exhibition game and home run derby.

This is the third-straight season that the two teams have met in the fall after playing the previous games in the spring.

“This was a great experience as always and a lot of thanks to Nick Grueser and Tom Dixon, and the entire Lugnuts organization. It’s always one of the best nights of the year for us,” MSU head coach Jake Boss Jr. said.

Freshman outfielder Zaid Walker had a smashing debut in a Spartan uniform, participating in the home run derby before the game, then going 2-for-4 with four RBI during the game. Sophomore infielder Zach Iverson, redshirt-freshman infielder Peter Ahn and freshman catcher Gabe Sotres had the Spartans other hits. Junior pitcher Mike Mokma started on the mound for the Spartans, who utilized seven different pitchers, part of MSU’s 25 different players.

“I think we got a lot of young guys in there who were able to get their feet wet,” Boss said. “Zaid Walker is a talented kid, and Peter Ahn had a hit tonight as a freshman. Mitchell Tyranski threw really well, Mike Mokma threw well, a lot of guys really threw well. I think there are a lot of positives we can take away. It’s practice number two for us, so I’d expect us to be a little bit rusty.”

Walker is a highly decorated recruit and was selected in the MLB Draft, but chose to bypass professional baseball for the time being and join the Spartans.

“I love it here. I love wearing the Green and White. Coach Boss is great, the rest of the coaching staff is great and I’m glad to be part of the family,” Walker said. “I came here because of the coaching staff and I knew it was a great school. They have the number one program in the country for supply chain management, which was something I wanted to pursue. Also I know the baseball is great. I knew as soon as I stepped on campus it was the right fit.”

Walker drove in a pair of runs in the fifth inning and two more in the seventh.

“It’s about making adjustments. I hope this is the start of a great Spartan career. It’s a confidence booster and lets me know I can play with these guys. Also to stay humble and know it’s just a start,” Walker said.

Despite the heat and humidity, an energetic crowd was treated to an evening full of entertaining baseball, geting a preview of the 2018 Spartans squad and a look at future Lugnuts, as they called up several young prospects before Wednesday night’s playoff game.

“It’s something we use to recruit to and something guys talk about for a long, long time to come. Our first year here was 11 years ago now and those guys on our first team still talk about playing in the Crosstown Showdown. It’s a highlight of the year for them and I just can’t thank the Lugnuts and the Blue Jays for allowing it to happen,” Boss said.

Prior to the game, the two teams held a home run derby with three players from each team taking part. Sophomore catcher and defending champion Adam Proctor was joined in representing MSU by junior utility player Andrew Morrow and freshman outfielder Zaid Walker, both of whom were making their Spartan debuts. After a two swing offs were needed to determine the Spartans’ representative in the finals, Proctor advanced to face the Lugnuts’ Freddy Rodriguez of the Lugnuts. Proctor prevailed in the finals with seven home runs, topping Rodriguez’s six on a “walk-off” blast and win the Crosstown Showdown Home Run Derby for the second-straight season.

“Great for Adam, he’s a local guy so he had a lot of friends and family here. It was a lot of fun for him to come out and defend that title. It was a dog fight for sure, I think he’s going to sleep pretty well tonight,” Boss said.

The Lugnuts got on the board with a run in the second inning on an RBI triple by Jose Ferrer. Lansing tacked on three runs in the third, including a pair on a two-run double by Vinny Capra. Another run in the fourth gave the Lugnuts a 5-0 lead.

Michigan State broke through with two runs in the top of the fifth, with Walker lacing a two-run single to center, as the Spartans closed to 5-2.

Lansing tacked on a run in the bottom of the fifth for a 6-2 lead. However, the Spartans rallied in the top of the seventh, again with Walker driving in a pair of runs on a two-run single to left with the bases loaded, before MSU’s rally ended with the bases loaded to end the game.

Iowa Announces Fall Schedule

Iowa City, Iowa — The University of Iowa baseball team will host three fall exhibitions, a Scout Day, and the Black & Gold Fall World Series at Duane Bank Field. The fall schedule was announced Friday by head coach Rick Heller.

The Hawkeyes begin their exhibition slate, hosting Southeastern Community College at 6 p.m. (CT) on Sept. 20 before welcoming the Ontario Blue Jays to Iowa City a day later. Game times are 6 p.m. (CT) and 5 p.m., respectively.

After holding Scout Day on Sept. 28, the Hawkeyes will face Kirkwood Community College on Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. before playing the the best-of-three Black & Gold World Series from Oct. 10-12.

Iowa returns 20 letterwinners, including five starters, from a team that finished 33-20 last season. The Hawkeyes return starting pitchers Cole McDonald (3-2, 3.23 ERA) and Jack Dreyer (5-2, 3.69 ERA), while welcoming 16 newcomers to the 2019 roster.

Iowa Baseball Fall Schedule

Sept. 20 — Southeastern Community College — Iowa City, Iowa — 6 p.m.

Sept. 21 — Ontario Blue Jays — Iowa City, Iowa — 5 p.m.

Sept. 28 — Scout Day — Iowa City, Iowa — 2 p.m.

Oct. 5 — Kirkwood Community College — 5 p.m.

Oct. 10-12 — Black & Gold Fall World Series — 2 p.m. (pregame)

Iowa’s Barta, Heller Agree on Contract Amendment

Iowa City, Iowa — Henry B. and Patricia B. Tippie Director of Athletics Chair Gary Barta and University of Iowa head baseball coach Rick Heller have agreed on a contract amendment that will run through 2024.

“Rick has done a tremendous job from day one, winning, graduating, and building this program the right way,” said Barta. “Rick has turned this program into one that contends annually in the Big Ten Conference and nationally. This amendment puts us in a position to keep Rick in Iowa City for the foreseeable future.”

In his five seasons in Iowa City, Heller has guided the Hawkeyes to 173 victories, averaging 34.6 wins per season. Heller guided Iowa to the NCAA Regionals in 2015 — a first for the program since 1990 — and two seasons later the Hawkeyes won their first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.

Iowa has played in NCAA Regionals twice in Heller’s five seasons. The program advanced to NCAA play just three times in its history prior to Heller’s arrival. The Hawkeyes also claimed a silver medal at the 2017 World University Games, becoming the first American squad to medal in Universiade history.

Heller has coached six All-Americans and at least one first-team All-Big Ten selection in each of his five seasons and the program has had 20 Major League Baseball Draft selections — the most in a five-year stretch all-time.