The Illinois baseball team let its hair grow, hung an empty uniform in the dugout and sung a song from the seventies during a winning streak that lasted more than a month.
Whatever it took to keep the mood light and the wins coming.
The Fighting Illini extended the longest winning streak in Division I this season to 27 games before the remarkable run finally ended at Target Field in Minneapolis in a late-night loss to Maryland, which was Illinois’ first since the last weekend in March.
Illinois bounced back to defeat Michigan State the next day, before getting eliminated by Michigan.
Despite the disappointing conference tournament, the Illini earned one of eight national seeds in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. That means the Big Ten regular season champions can reach the College World Series in Omaha without leaving Illinois Field, where they posted a 22-2 record this season.
On the field, dominant pitching and consistent hitting fueled the run. Three starting pitchers had an earned run average less than 2.50 entering the conference tournament and closer Tyler Jay was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. The team posted a .312 batting average during the streak.
The Illini is a veteran group with 19 juniors and seniors, and because of their years together are a tight-knit bunch. Each player handles his role without taking himself too seriously and their resiliency showed via 23 comeback wins on the season.
Along the way to their conference-record streak they remained loose and adopted several superstitions.
Illinois coach Dan Hartleb is typically a stickler for clean-cut haircuts. Yet he softened that stance as his players’ hair grew with the winning streak.
First baseman David Kerian, the team’s best hitter, went from shorn to shaggy while continuing to pace the team in batting average, home runs and slugging.
“I think we all decided around 12 games what was really going on,” Kerian said. “We just wanted to see how long we could grow it out here. It’s something we’ve been doing for fun.”
Starting catcher Jason Goldstein let his hair go for the first time in his life. The result is a far reaching ‘do he calls the Fro-Jo. Tucked under the helmet during games, Goldstein lets his full fluff fly when he’s out at night or heading to class in the morning.
The players shave their faces. During the games, they tuck their hair behind headbands or under skull caps beneath their baseball caps. None of the coaches let their locks get long; all but two or three players are participating, and the others are excused.
“Our second baseman (Reid Roper) is a fifth-year senior and a student teacher. So, he’s grandfathered in.”
Wouldn’t want to scare the children.
The Illini idiosyncrasies went beyond their bangs.
Pitching coach Drew Dickinson used to stand the entire game. But earlier this season as the Illini batted during the 13th inning of a tie game with Northwestern, he and infielder Michael Hurwitz decided to sit down. Two hits producing the winning runs followed. Because Hurwitz is redshirting this season, he doesn’t travel with the team. So, Dickinson, not wanting to tempt fate, continued sitting down and started taping Hurwitz’s empty uniform on the wall in the dugout.
"There's one thing certain,” Dickinson told OneNewsPage.com, “like they say in Bull Durham, you don't mess with streaks, winning streaks in baseball.
Music was also part of the recipe that kept the Illini loose and joyful.
Illinois (46-6-1) swept seven consecutive conference series to close the regular season.
On the bus ride home to Champaign following another perfect weekend, the Illini sang along to the disco number “Right Back Where We Started From,” a hit for Maxine Nightingale before any of the current players were born.
“I’m not even sure what the name of that song is,” Kerian said. “But we enjoy it and it became part of our rides home.”