MVC Elimination Marks End of Era for Illinois State
CARBONDALE, Ill. - There were plenty of tears to be found on Thursday afternoon in Illinois State’s postgame huddle after its 6-5 loss to Valparaiso.
You could see it on the face of fifth-year senior DH Jordan Libman, who went through a round of embraces with his teammates in the outfield and then doubled back with several more teammates afterward in the dugout.
You could also see it in fifth-year senior lefthander Colton Johnson, the Redbirds’ reliable workhorse, who stood by the dugout rail taking it in before being embraced by coach Steve Holm, who was doing his own lap around the dugout giving hugs and asking each player if they were doing OK.
The emotion of an abrupt loss played a role. In the bottom of the ninth, with pinch runner Jeremy Gaines on second, catcher Tyson Hays hit a ground ball into the hole at short. The throw was high and Hays was ruled to have avoided a swipe tag, which allowed Gaines to score and tie the game, at least for the moment. But after a replay review, he was called out and that was it.
But any loss was going to be emotional no matter how it came because it’s the end of the road for a good portion of this Redbird team. There were six seniors in the starting lineup, and fully, there are 15 seniors on the roster. With a couple of possible exceptions for injured players who could theoretically redshirt and come back, it’s the end of the line for that group.
That includes Johnson, Libman, Gaines, do-everything Joe Butler, who played just about every position on the field and hit in the middle of the order in his career, and other lineup regulars in Aidan Huggins, Tyson Hays and Jack Butler.
For them, it was quite a ride in the ISU program. It’s most of those guys that led the Redbirds to a regional in 2019, just the fourth in program history, and then pushed host Louisville to a deciding game in the regional final.
“I think they’ll be remembered (for) that 2019 team,” Holm said. “I think that’s the piece that was so good, I think.”
There’s no way around saying it was a disappointing end for them. It came into the season as the platonic ideal of an experienced mid-major team that might be ready for a deep postseason run, but it just didn’t work out that way.
Injuries really hit the team hard. Catcher Hayden Jones, a Mississippi State transfer, was limited to just 38 games and was not on the field this week in Carbondale. It was a similar story for outfielder Gunner Peterson. Hard-throwing freshman righthander Mason Burns was shelved after just four appearances. Another righthander expected to have a big role, Connor Peplow, appeared just three times. And that’s to say nothing of the players who were banged up but healthy enough to give it a go down the stretch.
Things started off slow against a tough schedule, with the Redbirds sitting at 5-12 after a road sweep at the hands of East Carolina, and although they steadied the ship from there, they never truly got rolling. After Thursday’s elimination, ISU finished the season 23-34 overall, and with a 1-2 showing in the MVC Tournament, 13-17 in conference games.
“Obviously, they’re going to end on a little bit of a sour note, and I don’t know how we could have avoided it with as many injuries as we’ve had this season,” Holm said. “We lost significant pieces on the offensive side, three huge pieces on the pitching mound. I commend these guys for battling.”
But if Illinois State continues to move forward as a program, as Holm hopes it will, the down note on which it ended won’t be the legacy of this group. Rather, they’ll be known as the group that went on a magical postseason run and made the Redbirds contenders in the MVC again.
“I think (when) we talk about Vanderbilt, there was that one year, I think it was David Price, that kind of got them going,” Holm said. “Every program that turned themselves into a winning tradition, obviously there’s a couple key players and one key year, and I think that 2019 season ultimately will propel us.”
The work to make sure the 2019 season will truly be a game changer for the Redbirds is still in front of this coaching staff given all of the roster turnover they will deal with, but there are intriguing players set to return, including center fielder Ryan Cermak, the best prospect on the club, and righthander Sean Sinisko, who had a nice year as a counterpart to Johnson in the rotation this season.
If the next core of players establishes the winning tradition that Holm speaks of, it will have been thanks in large part to the guys who walked off the field in Carbondale on Thursday with tears in their eyes.