Illinois Baseball: Interview with Coach Dan Hartleb

Apr 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; A general view of a baseball on the field prior to a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; A general view of a baseball on the field prior to a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /

I recently caught up with Dan Hartleb, head coach for the University of Illinois baseball team.

Dan was kind enough to give me this interview last year, too, when I first started this little gig as a contributing writer for Writing Illini.

I’m hoping next year this story will follow fresh Big Ten and NCAA tournament appearances. 2015 sure was fun, and I have a good feeling Coach Hartleb will have them back in the spotlight soon enough.

There are some good nuggets in here from Hartleb, including his thoughts on the format of the Big Ten Tournament and well-wishes for a beloved departing player.

One thing I might add that I found interesting: He chose not to answer a question I had about the regression of pitcher Cole Bellair. There might not be anything to it, and it could simply be a case of a coach protecting a player who had a rough season.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded and then transcribed. I’ve paraphrased in certain areas for clarity.

Writing Illini: It’s been two seasons now just missing out on the Big Ten tournament. What will it take next year to get back to the conference post-season? What about the CWS?

Dan Hartleb: We need to have more consistency next year. I like the young players we have and the progress we’ve made. I like some of the additions that we have, including a few older guys that redshirted and will be part of the program next year. It takes winning at a high rate, along with a special mentality, and I have a good feeling about where we’re at and where we can be next year.

WI: Given your history of success at Illinois, it’s usually not a problem, but what are your thoughts on the Big Ten expanding the conference tournament to include all teams, like basketball?

DH: As a coaching group we’ve asked for expansion, and to go to at least ten teams. That was voted down this year. I think part of it is that one school, Northwestern, is still in class at that time, which means if you start expanding days they’ll miss almost a week of school.

If you look at the number of teams we [the Big Ten] get in the NCAA tournament, I think it’s imperative that we figure out a way to expand our tournament to at least ten teams. We’ve had issues in the past where a team has just missed the Big Ten tournament, and had they made it they might have been NCAA eligible.

WI: In general, the pitching staff was very young and struggled. What’s your number one lesson for them going into next year? Is anyone showing promise of becoming the next Illini ace?

DH: Anytime you have what you consider a sub-par year, all positions are wide open. I thought we made great strides from a pitching standpoint when you look at how we started the year and where we ended up. We had a lot of competitive outings late in the season. We’ve got a couple incoming arms that redshirted last year. I really think we’ll have a much better pitching staff in 2018.

WI: On the flip side, the offense had a couple breakout performances from Jack Yalowitz and Michael Massey. Talk a little bit about what they mean to the program going forward.

DH: I thought Michael and Jack both did a great job from an offensive standpoint. Looking at Jack, he really matured as an individual and as a player. Played extremely hard. Michael Massey the same way. It’s not easy to play the game of baseball at this level, and part of it is how you handle tough times and how you rebound from bad games. Those guys, from a mental standpoint, were outstanding. I’m looking forward to what they’ll do for us in the future.

WI: I’m sure you’ll be missing Pat McInerney next year. He was another great example of a four-year player that really developed under your tutelage. What are your thoughts on his chances at the next level? What can he still get better at?

DH: Well, Pat was unbelievable this year. On the field, he continued to make strides. He was an offensive force, hitting in the three-hole all year, which is not easy. I’m very confident he’ll be in the draft. When you watch that big body walk into the locker room, you have some instant respect. When you see the power that he has, and his fielding versatility in the outfield or at first base, you know he brings a lot of things to the table. I’m looking forward to him moving on to the next level and having a successful pro career.

But the thing that stands out the most to me about Pat is his leadership and who he is as a person. He was a great student-athlete. He did an outstanding job in the classroom. We had zero issues with him off the field. What he meant to this young team, how he led even when he went through a little slump, how he kept the team moving forward, making sure we had quality practices; he was one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had here at Illinois in my tenure.

Editor’s note: Following this interview and one day before publishing this story, it was announced that McInerney signed a professional contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.

WI: Lastly, are there any new players coming in next year to keep an eye on? Any guys on your current roster who didn’t contribute much this year but you see taking a big step forward in 2018?

Next: Starting lineup with Matic Vesel for 2017-18

DH: I don’t want to get into specific names, since there are so many guys who can help us. We had three transfers that redshirted last year who will help us. The freshman class is extremely talented with guys coming from great high school programs and who’ve played on good summer league teams. I’m excited about the additions we will have and the core that we have right now.

We have the makings of a very good team in 2018. We all have to get better, including the coaches. I’m looking forward to getting the guys back and getting into the 2018 season.