By: Alexis Brudnicki
The Fighting Illini are playing with house money.
Advancing to the super regional round for the first time in program history and hosting last year’s College World Series champions in Vanderbilt, Illinois is riding the wave of success it’s been on all season and hoping it continues, but is already ecstatic with how far the team has made it.
“Everyone is really, really pumped up and excited,” catcher and Victoria, BC native Kelly Norris-Jones said. “The whole being in our first super regional ever, and how we’re the first and everything – we don’t really feel the same pressure. It’s just another thing on our list to check off. So we’re pretty jacked.”
Despite not experiencing much pressure, there might have been some nerves on display when Illinois opened the regional round against Ohio. It didn’t take long for the team to regain form, however, moving on after taking down the Bobcats, Notre Dame and Wright State.
“The first game, in the first couple innings guys were not nervous, but a little anxious kind of,” Norris-Jones said. “We’re playing at home, here it is, and you could see it was a little off for the first couple innings. Then after that it started heating up and we exploded and beat Ohio 10-3. You could see guys loosening up after the first couple innings. We knew that was going to happen with the atmosphere and the pressure, but we’ve been really good at dealing with pressure this year. We were on a 27-game winning streak and we didn’t really let it get to us…
“The Notre Dame game was a good, hard-fought game and everyone in the dugout was up. Guys got on each other a little bit but not too much, because we weren’t really hitting for a little bit. But give the bats some time and they do what they normally do…
“[Monday against the Raiders] because they got their two runs on an error a couple of the guys were a little bit upset with themselves on the error, but we just flipped the switch and it was our time. With everything we’ve done this year, we weren’t going to let that affect it. After that, the game was over. At least we thought that.”
The experience has been a new one for the team, and for the Illini faithful as well, scrambling to secure spots to support the squad in both the regional round and for the weekend against the Commodores.
“It was definitely a little bit different for the fans too,” Norris-Jones said. “There has never been a host at our school so the fans were very, very supportive and they all came out. We sold the seats in about 30 minutes. Every single seat was sold that was available.
“That just shows the Illini nation and their passion they have for everything. For the supers, there were general seats and reserved and they sold out the reserved seating in 28 minutes, which is 1400 tickets, and the general seating, which is a thousand, that sold out in seven minutes. That shows the support we have.”
From the beginning Illinois knew they had a special group of players, but Norris-Jones believes that a trip over the Thanksgiving break in November to the Dominican Republic – to support and experience baseball in the country – really brought the team together and was a game changer.
“We only lost three seniors [from last year] and one was to the draft, and two other guys who weren’t in our starting lineup, so we knew we had something special here,” the 23-year-old backstop said. “We just didn’t know how special it was.
“But we went to the Dominican and I feel like that was a big bonding point for this team. We were all already close because a lot of us have been on the team for three, four, five years together, because we’re an older team, but that Dominican trip was a big bonding time for us and you could see everything click after that…
“It was a different experience. You don’t know how fortunate you are to be living in America or Canada until you go outside of the country. It’s a big eye opener, and we were very fortunate to see that too.”
The trip was humbling, even for a team without any egos among plenty of impressive players, which is what Norris-Jones believes has led them to the success they’ve found.
“There’s no one person who thinks they’re too big for the team,” the former member of the Canadian Junior National Team said. “Even [Tyler Jay] who is probably going to go in the top three picks [in the draft], he’s not full of himself. He wants what’s best for the team and that’s the biggest thing that we have that probably some of the other teams don’t have. We work really well as a team.”
While Jay is “an absolute stud,” according to Norris-Jones, and the best pitcher he’s ever caught, including all of the great arms he formed batteries with on Team Canada, he’s been most impressed this season by the Fighting Illini’s first baseman.
“It’s been David Kerian, actually,” the redshirt senior said. “Our first baseman. He’s a very athletic kid at his position and is fast for a first baseman too. His power numbers are ridiculous. He’s had 16 home runs and he’s hitting .376 and you normally don’t see the home runs and average. He’s definitely come up in a lot of big situations…and he’s definitely the guy.”
Norris-Jones follows a line of Canadian catchers at Illinois that include former big leaguer Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.), current Florida volunteer assistant coach Lars Davis (Grand Prairie, Alta.) and Aaron Johnson (Sussex Corner, NC), making it further as a member of the Illini than his Canuck counterparts, and right now he is just enjoying every minute.
“It’s definitely pretty special,” he said. “This whole ride has been something that obviously a whole lot of people don’t get to experience and I’ve been very fortunate to experience it so I’ve taken everything in as much as I can…
“I don’t think it has sunk in yet. It will probably quite a bit after, but it definitely hasn’t yet. It’s something that everyone wants to go through but you kind of pinch yourself saying, is this really happening to me? It’s been pretty cool.”
The west coaster is one of four Canadians in the super regional round of play, joined by TCU’s Jeremie Fagnan (Calgary, Alta.), Virginia’s Danny Pinero (Toronto, Ont.) and Missouri State’s Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.). The Horned Frogs are hosting Texas A&M, the Cavaliers are at home against Maryland, and the Bears are at Arkansas.