Winning isn't everything, but for the University of Illinois baseball team it has become the only thing. The Illini have won 46 games on the season. The bad boys of the Big Ten also hold the nation's longest winning streak at 27 games. But Illinois a baseball school? Where has this success stemmed from?
Ten years. That is how long it had been since the Illinois baseball team won their last outright Big Ten Championship, until last week. At this time last year the Illini had 31 victories and no chance to make the NCAA tournament. 365 days later, things have changed.
In the decade that Dan Hartleb has been the head coach of Illinois he has never seen a group of ball players quite like this.
"They're fun, they're funny. They've been through a lot of ups and downs, which we talked about, in their careers. It's just a fun group to be around, if you look at the best teams at any level, the majority of the time it's people that get along and have fun together and part of having fun is winning. It kinda goes hand in hand. But if you're always tight, you don't win as much and at a high level. This has been a fairly easy group, from the standpoint that they are focused and do the right things."
The Illini's laid back and nonchalant attitude can be attributed largely to their success on the diamond. Four victories are what separate this group from being the winningest team in school history, a record that has stood for the last 33 years.
But handling success has become second nature to this ball club.
"We do have a maturity level. You don't always have that when you have a lot of young players, but this older group, they've handled it very well. We've got a lot of guys that are experienced and a lot of players that understand what it takes to win. From day one we talked about the fact that you can't talk about the season, you have to go play the season and as you do things properly you get recognized and you have to be able to handle that," Hartleb said.
The Illini returned eight of their nine starters from last season, including five seniors who helped build the foundation for this year's team. However, one in particular has stood out from the pack.
Meet Casey Fletcher.
Fletcher is a 5-foot-11 senior from Oakwood, Illinois. He didn't start playing organized baseball until he was 6 years old, but there was something in the Fletcher genes that made him a natural.
Casey's father and grandfather both earned varsity letters playing baseball for the University of Illinois, and both men made the leap to play professional baseball in the majors.
His grandfather, Tom Fletcher, played for the Detroit Tigers in 1962. And his father, Darrin Fletcher, had a 14-year stint in Major League Baseball playing for five different teams and accumulating 124 homeruns.
This family legacy is something that has fueled Fletcher to become the ball player he is today, but that's not the only thing pushing him.
"One thing I heard when I was really little, I can't remember who said it, but it's just something that stuck to me: I'm going to play ball until they rip the jersey off me, and tell me that I can't play anymore. I think that's my biggest motto, I am going to play until they rip it off me."
Fletcher's willingness to never quit is something that separates him from any college baseball player in the country. His passion for the game has helped the Illini to their best start in school history, but so has his attitude. Fletcher is a smiley kid, who loves to mess around with his teammates.
"We are a very, very loose ball club. We all get along great, so we're never tight or anything. It's relieving coming to the ballpark every day, and just someone cracking jokes, or something like that. It just keeps everybody loose, it just makes playing the game that much better, and it makes it fun. I think that is a great thing that our ball club does that we have fun. And I think that's why we are successful."
The Illini know they control their own destiny, but for the First-Team All Big Ten outfielder, there is still work to be done.
"I think we're coming into our roles as a team and as players. I think everyone knows what they have to do, in order to be successful. That's why I think we've been in stride these past couple of weeks, but we have more to do."
With the Big Ten Tournament underway and the NCAA Tournament right around the corner the Illini's motivation has never been higher.
Coach Hartleb touched on the importance of knowing what is expected of you on the baseball field.
"If I have to motivate the players we are in trouble. I believe that in any year, its gotta be important to them, they've gotta come out with an expectation to win. I really think that if I have to come out here and motivate them, they're not going to learn very much."
This ball club is the highest ranked team in school history. Their six losses are the lowest among any team in the NCAA. But more importantly, these players know their dream season isn't over yet.
But the ultimate dream, Fletcher says, is dogpiling.
"I wanna dogpile in Omaha, that's what I want to do. I think with the team and the group of guys that we have I think there's no reason that we shouldn't go to Omaha this year. We have a very good ball club, and I think we have a chance of winning the whole entire stinking thing. The biggest accomplishment would be that 27th out in Omaha, and I'm running in from the outfield and all my teammates are pilling on and I just come in flailing like Batman. That's what I want to do."
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