The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews with coaches around the nation with Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. He is entering his third season in charge of the Fighting Illini program where he has a overall career record of 60-56 while going 31-31 in Big Ten play.
1. Illinois is coming off a 2009 season which saw them go 34-20 overall while 16-8 in Big Ten play. What are your expectations for the 2010 season?
DH: I expect the program to continue to move forward. We were ranked for half of the season last year and I think that’s something that’s attainable for our program on a regular basis. We need to continue to work to move up in the conference standings and put ourselves in a position to be an NCAA tournament team on an annual basis.
2. Bryan Roberts is the only returning starting pitcher from the 2009 season. Who do you expect to fill the other two spots in the rotation?
DH: Will Strack also pitched quite a bit for us as a freshman and made five starts in the Big Ten, so he will contribute as a starter. Overall, I think we’re going to have good pitching depth, but It’s too early to know who will fit into that third starter spot on the weekend. My thought is that it will be a young pitcher and we have a number of those guys who are very capable. A lot of those things will be determined as we move through our four early weekends.
3. Last season, The Fighting Illini had five different pitchers record at least two saves. Do you expect to have someone fill in that position full-time or are you going to use the “closer by committee” theory for the season?
DH: I’m hopeful that our starting rotation is strong enough early in the year where we can use Lee Zerrusen as our full-time closer. He’s very experienced, very competitive and has shown that he’s capable of pitching late in games in tough situations.
4. Have any of the incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you expect any of them to break into the starting lineup/rotation this spring?
DH: I’ve been extremely impressed with our entire freshman class and I do think we have several players who could break into the starting lineup. Brandon Hohl, Kevin Johnson, Christian Cummins and Matt Milroy all are talented and athletic enough to contribute at a high level during their freshman year.
5. The Big Ten is getting stronger every season with Minnesota and Ohio State each winning games in the 2009 Regional. What team is going to be the biggest challenge to winning the 2010 Big Ten title?
DH: I think Ohio State will be the preseason favorite. They have many key players returning, including the returning Big Ten Pitcher and Player of the Year.
6. Illinois sent players in the summer of 2009 to the Northwoods League and the Alaskan League to just name a few. How do you decide where to send your players during the offseason?
DH: We’re fortunate that (associate head coach) Eric Snider was a long-time coach in the Northwoods League and has a great feel for the owners, GMs and coaches in various leagues throughout the country. He’s done a great job of getting our players involved in well-run organizations that have allowed them to mature and develop. We continue to look to send our players to different areas to gain different experiences throughout their careers.
7. We have now been through two seasons with the Uniform Start Date being in effect. What is your early opinion on the rule change?
DH: I’m disappointed that the season was extended on the front end for 2010. I know there are many factors, including the NCAA Tournament, that make it difficult to open it up on the back end in a short amount of time. I really felt that in 2009 we started to see some equity between the northern and southern schools. I feel like opening it up earlier caters to the warm-weather schools.
8. How will the new rules with the way the scholarships can be split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
DH: I think the changes have affected the depth that you’re able to have on your team. I really don’t feel that the rule changes have addressed the problem. In my opinion, the problem is schools being allowed to over-sign players. If schools were forced to stay within the scholarship limits on signing day, you would see more regional recruiting, which would save money, and you would see more parity across the country.
9. With the removal of the one-time transfer exemption that allowed student-athletes to change schools once without having to sit out a red-shirt year, do you feel that there is more pressure on a coach to recruit with responsibility or for the student-athlete to be aware of what programs are the best fit for them?
DH: I think it’s a combination of both factors. We’ve always tried to be conscious of the type of student-athlete that we recruit. We need to be very aware of the ramifications that careless recruiting can have on the lives of student-athletes. I think it’s important that players choose universities for the right reasons and I hope they understand that after their playing careers are over, the vast majority will need to use their education to make a living. I hope we can get to a point in college baseball where everyone is extremely ethical as we deal with the recruiting process and the futures of our student-athletes.