Illinois baseball is enjoying another fine season. Coming off a solid rebound year in 2018, improving its win total by ten from the year prior, the Illini are back at their winning ways in 2019 as they head down the home stretch to the Big Ten tournament.
While this team is full a big-hitters and quality starters, two student-athletes have stood out among the rest. It isn’t because of their lofty stats or conference accolades, or anything they do on the field. Reliever Josh Harris and catcher David Craan have formed one of college baseball's more unique batteries, as their experiences off the field have taught them (and their teammates) invaluable lessons.
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Harris isn’t your traditional sophomore. The 25-year-old left-hander transferred in from Kankakee Community College. While he owns a sparkling 1.04 ERA, a 92 mile per hour fastball and a sharp slider, he also brings a lot more to the team.
He is a former Marine, spending over four years serving the country between 2011 and 2015. That includes two separate deployments overseas. That background certainly helps Harris on the field, especially in his role as a reliever, when he often walks right into intense situations.
Off the field, you can only imagine the sense of team and brotherhood that Harris brings to the Illini clubhouse.
"It's just a bunch of individuals who want to succeed and push the people next to them and watch them succeed as well," Harris told Mike Pearson of FightingIllini.com of his time with the Marines. "They're just the most unselfish people, all trying to get better every single day. I matured more because of them. That experience made me understand life in general."
Craan, who has had plenty an opportunity to catch the lefty, relishes the opportunity to play on the same field as Harris. “He’s an awesome dude,” Craan said. “He’s fearless, nothing worries him. He just goes about his business. He's really serious about baseball, but he’s an easy-going guy that’s awesome to be around.”
Craan, too, is unlike most other players, truly putting the student in student-athlete. While the senior has become a reliable, veteran backstop on the field, his off-the-field accomplishments are awe-inspiring. He has not one, but two majors with a 3.66 GPA, and is also an active member in the NCAA community. He’s the Illinois Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representative, and also represented the Illini at the NCAA Leadership Forum in Virginia.
“Oh, that was awesome,” Craan said of the forum. “I got to hear about some cutting-edge leadership theories and applications. I got to connect with different athletes from all over the country, DI, DII, and DIII. It was a cool experience to get to travel and hang out with all these people and do all the activities.”
But wait, there’s more.
He volunteers for a multitude of causes: Big Brothers Big Sisters, the WCIA Toy Drive, and the Champaign County Buddy Walk just to name a few.
“People have told me I should go into working with kids or maybe even teach,” Craan said. “I really enjoy being around kids, whether it’s playing baseball or hanging out. I like to find something fun to do and give back any way I can.”
Of course, you can’t keep Craan away from the sports world. He feels this Illini team is the best he’s played on yet.
“Oh yeah,” Craan said. “Our potential is unlimited. The only thing that can stop us is ourselves. The expectations are high, we’re definitely excited.”
But when he’s not playing baseball on the diamond, you can find him courtside, or maybe even on another field, volunteering as the Illinois Athletics social media photographer.
“It started in high school,” Craan said of his love of photography. “I had some friends that did it. I started out with a digital camera and just messed around with it. I’ve had different opportunities from the athletic department to take pictures and help them out doing that.”
Somehow, Craan fits all this into seven days of the week and excels at every endeavor he tackles. With the weeks winding down to his time as a student-athlete in Champaign, he hopes his last four years have left an indelible mark on future Fighting Illini.
“I just want to make sure people realize it’s a blessing to be where we are, playing DI baseball," Craan said. "You can impact people a lot more than just on the field. That’s all temporary. But you can make a much more lasting impact on people’s lives outside of baseball.”