Redbirds Baseball Set to Open Season at Arkansas, Tough Schedule Ahead for Promising Lineup
Written by Mikey Fornelli on February 8, 2022
NORMAL, Ill.- Somewhere way south of the snowy plains of Normal, there is sun and grass waiting to play ball. The Arkansas Razorbacks have longed for it, coming off a 2021 SEC Championship and NCAA Super Regional exit.
They’ll have another chance starting in just over a week, but their visiting opponent should not be looked past. Do not let the snow and cold fool you- Head Coach Steve Holm and the Illinois State Redbirds baseball team are confident and ready for the heat.
Holm, a former pro catcher who is now entering his fourth season as the Redbirds’ skipper, addressed the media for the first time this season on Monday. Joined by his two Missouri Valley Conference All-Preseason first-teamers, Ryan Cermak and Jake McCaw, Holm gave his thoughts on the upcoming season- including fresh faces, high expectations, and a tough schedule.
“We finally have the roster where we want it,” Holm said. “We finally have a lot of pitching coming back, and we have a lot of experience on the offensive side.”
Coming off a 23-34 season in 2021 (12-15 MVC), the Redbirds were ranked in a tie for third among the conference in the preseason poll with a strong group of returning players hoping to step into bigger roles this season. One of those players, first baseman Jake McCaw, says that he and his teammates have their own expectations.
“It’s hard to judge, even for ourselves.” McCaw, who bat an MVC-high .417 in 2021, said, “with some new faces are coming in, this preseason stuff- it’s all just talk until you actually step on the field and prove something.”
Ryan Cermak, another returning player, is coming off one of the best possible seasons for a first-year player when it comes to all-around talent. Not only did he take home MVC Defensive Player of the Year, but he also had 40 RBIs- the most for any Redbird in 2021. How do you elevate your game and set goals from there? For Cermak, it’s now about improving the team’s record.
“I’m trying to win,” Cermak said. “That is everyone’s goal this year. I want to hit the ball hard and get outs, simple as that. Nobody likes losing, and this year we’re making some changes to get on the right track.”
Between these returning bats and new recruits, the Redbirds are looking to have continued success all season long from the batter’s box.
“We’ll have some new guys near the middle of the lineup, and the returning guys near the top- myself included.” McCaw said, “From five through nine, we’re going to have those new guys stepping up…I think we’re looking pretty good on the offense side.”
Those new faces come as a group of seventeen, five freshman and twelve transfers. Coach Holm has high expectations for all of them, including a transfer from his own hometown of Sacremento- Greg Nichols. The sophomore infielder should be featured prominently for the Redbirds early on, with plans to move returner Aiden Huggins to the outfield.
“He has come in and really solidified our defense,” Holm said on Nichols. “Very calming presence in the middle of the diamond, he is very steady.”
Additionally, Holm sung the praises of a true freshman recruit that they believe has a chance to make an impact from day one. JP Gauthier, a De Pere Wisconsin native, is also an infielder with a promising future.
“J.P. [Gauthier] is probably one of the most talented players we’ve had here,” Holm said. “He’s ready to start the season offensively, and we’re going to see where his defense is at when the season gets going. He’s extremely talented.”
ISU will travel face Arkansas starting February 18, and then will see various opponents such as Western Carolina and Murray State. After a month of being the visiting team, the Redbirds will host Purdue on March 17 and 18 at Duffy Bass Field for their home opener series. It’ll be the first time the Redbirds open at home against a Power Five school since 1991. However this matchup with Purdue, where Coach Holm formerly served as pitching coach before coming to ISU, is no coincidence. Despite his familiarity with the Boilermakers, Holm says his team will prepare just as they would normally.
“Two wins,” Holm said on his expectations when hosting his former program in their home opener weekend. “It was an easy schedule with them. Getting a Big Ten team here on the weekend is not always the easiest thing to do. Some of those guys on that club, I recruited. I know a lot of the coaches, but obviously it’s going to be no different. You’re trying to win pitch by pitch. That’s all it’s about.”
The tough schedule does not end after Purdue. Before they open MVC play at Indiana State on April 1, the Redbirds will have already seen two additional Big Ten teams in Iowa and Illinois. In total, the ‘Birds will play ten games against Big Ten opponents and a program-record sixteen games against Power Five schools. Tough as that road may be, Coach Holm believes it is best for his team to play and battle in all of those games.
“Ultimately, you need to be able to play those teams,” Holm said. “Having those games on your schedule is vital. This league [MVC] has shown the ability to put multiple teams in the tournament. Having those Big Ten games mid-week is great. Obviously, you have to have the pitching to do it, but barring injury I think we’re in the right spot to where we can be ultra-competitive in those games.”
With a hungry team and big games ahead, the Illinois State Redbirds have a lot to be excited about this Spring on the diamond. It all starts in Arkansas.