JUCO-built Saluki baseball makes a formula for success
February 10, 2023
Coming off of a Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship and 44-win season, Saluki baseball is in a great place under fourth-year head coach Lance Rhodes.
Each of those accomplishments were the first time for the program since the 1990 season. For the last few years, the goal has been to catch up to that team, including the NCAA Tournament appearance, which remains the most recent time the Salukis did so.
“What we’ve been able to do in a short amount of time, in a couple of years, has been tremendous as far as just setting the standards of our program, and what we want to achieve, and what we want our seasons to look like,” Rhodes said. “We’re at a point now where we’ve just got to continue taking steps forward, and the next step forward is to get into a Regional.”
The 2023 team believes it has what it takes to get over the hump. In fact, reigning MVC Joe Carter Player of the Year, shortstop Kaeber Rog, feels like it should have already happened in 2022.
“My main thing is I want to go to Regionals, go to Super Regionals, where all the cool baseball is being played,” Rog said. “Last year, a lot of people might not agree, but I feel like as a team we kinda under-accomplished last year… I thought we were a damn good team.”
Rog won the MVC Player of the Year award and Newcomer of the Year in 2022, becoming only the second ever to do so after Dallas Baptist’s Darick Hall in 2016. Hall now plays for the Philadelphia Phillies of Major League Baseball.
After starting his collegiate career at Florida International University in 2019 and 2020, where he batted below the Mendoza Line, Rog transferred to Eastern Florida State, a junior college in Brevard County, Florida. There, he slashed .354/.420/.512 and was recruited to come to Southern Illinois for the 2022 season.
Having gotten a taste of Division I baseball, Rog said that his main goal at Eastern Florida State was to work his way back up.
“My goal was to go back to D1, and go back to a better D1 than my previous one,” he said. “It wasn’t always that easy, especially with COVID. D1’s weren’t coming out to see.”
Not only did he achieve that, but he turned in an award-winning performance in his debut season with the Salukis. Rog’s All-American year saw him hit 14 home runs after only hitting three in his entire career across NCAA and summer league ball.
The key ingredients to Rog’s added power element in 2022: confidence and comfort.
“It was getting comfortable swinging my most powerful swing,” Rog said. “In baseball, most times it’s hard to hit. So it’s easy to get in a feel of trying to hit the ball first, trying to make contact. Last year I really got comfortable like, never mind just contact, get comfortable swinging hard, trying to destroy the ball.”
That confidence could also be seen in Rog’s prominent leg kick, which went semi-viral on social media for its uniqueness, paired with the success Rog saw while using it. It’s something that he developed during his time at Eastern Florida State.
“I started it because I have problems hitting changeups,” he said. “I used to sink my body a lot, so I started using a leg kick, so I keep my body straight up… And then you need confidence when you hit, so the more I kept hitting, the more confidence I kept getting, the crazier my leg kick kept becoming.”
Also returning for his senior season is infielder Ryan Rodriguez, who was named to the All-MVC Second Team as a third-baseman in 2022, and also appeared on the All-Conference Tournament team.
“I think the same player is gonna return,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully better. I think I’ve put in a lot of hard work in practice. I’m not really thinking about the past, I’m not thinking about last season and what there is to expect of me in the future. I’m just day-by-day trusting the process and trusting our team.”
Similarly to his teammate, Rodriguez committed to a Division I school in Sacramento State out of high school. However, he instead went to College of the Desert in his native southern California. After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled what would have been his second season there, he transferred to Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Illinois.
“It was kinda out of the blue,” Rodriguez said. “I got to transfer there after I verbally committed here to SIU. I was left without a place to play because COVID had shut the junior college where I was at down two years in a row, and so coach Rhodes kind of helped give me some other school options for junior colleges.”
At Wabash Valley, Rodriguez would slash .305/.402/.524 and earn his way onto Rhodes’s Salukis, where he kept up his production at the Division I level. Additionally, his time in Mt. Carmel helped get the west coast kid accustomed to Illinois, especially the weather.
“The first junior college I went to, we didn’t even own a tarp because it didn’t even rain,” Rodriguez said. “That was kinda funny when I first moved out to Wabash, having to do tarp pulls. I was so new to that.”
Notably, Rodriguez was responsible for four late-game hits that led to Saluki wins in 2022, including a 10th-inning walk-off home run against Illinois.
“Those were definitely some exciting games,” he said. “I think those are memorable for the whole team, the whole dugout and just the atmosphere we were able to have and bring to the field. That’s what makes the game fun.”
Coincidentally, Rodriguez’s connection to Southern Illinois University goes beyond just playing for the Salukis. Back home in California, he would receive lessons from Dan Cassidy, who played infield for SIU in the mid 1980’s. Cassidy was teammates with Saluki Hall of Famer Steve Finley, who went on to be a 2x MLB All-Star.
“I ended up seeing [Cassidy] at the alumni weekend, and I was mind-blown because I didn’t even know he came here,” Rodriguez said.
In fact, their journeys to Carbondale were somewhat similar. Cassidy transferred to Southern as a junior and played for two years after spending time at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg.
The transition from junior college (JUCO) to Division I can be a difficult jump, especially for batters facing better pitching. However, at the end of the day, it’s still the same game of baseball, no matter the level.
“You wanna show what you’ve got,” Rog said. “Especially the new guys that we’ve got now from JUCO. They want to show that they can also compete well at the D1 level.”
Both Rog and Rodriguez joined the Salukis in 2022 as two of the team’s JUCO transfers. It’s a formula that Rhodes has credited as helping build the program into what it is today.
“It’s kind of a philosophy that we’ve attacked recruiting with, as far as just bringing in some junior college players with experience, some more mature, physical bodies,” Rhodes said. “Along with that, we have to recruit more players more often, but it’s been successful for us, so we’ve kinda continued that trend.”
While it may seem to be a disadvantage for a program to bring on so many short-term players without much experience playing together, that doesn’t appear to be the case, especially considering the results.
“I think coach Rhodes does a phenomenal job recruiting, and coaching us up,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t even think it’s a problem, really. I feel so comfortable with these guys and this team, that it doesn’t matter that we’ve only been together for the fall.”
As a mid-major school, Southern Illinois isn’t exactly a top destination for high school prospects. But being a Division I school, it serves as a great opportunity for players to work their way up to that level and still compete in the highest division in college baseball.
“We don’t have the luxury of having a high school kid that’s gonna be in your program for three, four, five years,” Rhodes said. “We need those [JUCO] guys. The intentions that we have when we recruit those guys are that they’re gonna come in and be impact players for us immediately.”
Rhodes holds a record of 96-42 in three years as head coach of the Salukis. In August, he signed a five-year contract extension to keep him in Carbondale through the 2027 season. His tenure as the leader of the program has been popular not just with fans, but with the players as well.
“For me, Rhodes is one of the best head coaches in college baseball,” Rog said. “His attention to details is unbelievable, and it makes me want to respect him as a head coach so much.”
While this year’s team looks to at least match, if not improve on the accomplishments of the 2022 Salukis, it faces a tougher road to that goal. This year, the non-conference schedule is notably more challenging, including a weekend series against Kentucky of the SEC.
In total, SIU will play 20 games against RPI top-100 teams from the 2022 season. That boost in difficulty may prove to be the difference between the Salukis making the NCAA Tournament in 2023 or not.
“We have a bunch of very competitive non-conference weekends at the beginning, and as long as we’re able to take care of business and win the games that we want to win, I feel like we’ll have a chance to look back at the end of the year and not just have to win the conference tournament to get into a Regional,” Rhodes said.
While Southern could earn an automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, a tough non-conference schedule could warrant a look from the tournament committee if the Salukis fall short similarly to 2022, when they lost in the MVC Tournament finals to Missouri State.
In addition to a boost in the team’s resume, Rhodes feels that the difficult early schedule will help the team prepare for conference play, which begins in late March.
“We’re gonna have to win games against really good teams,” Rhodes said. “But that’s what good teams have to do. You’ve got to beat good teams in order to be an at-large opportunity. We were at the point in our program where we needed to take that next step and challenge ourselves and see if we can make that a reality.”
As the Salukis push to return to the NCAA Tournament, they have the support of the members of that 1990 team, the last to do it. Notably, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who played catcher for the 1990 squad, gave the team a shoutout in his 2022 Saluki Hall of Fame induction speech back in October.
“I told Lance’s [Rhodes] group today. This group, next year, this is the group that breaks that,” Shelton said, referring to the program’s 33-year drought.
In addition to Shelton, former Saluki head coach Itchy Jones has expressed his support for the team. 1990 was Jones’s final season with SIU before taking the lead job at the University of Illinois.
“Itch is still as energetic about this program as he’s ever been,” Rhodes said. “Derek has done some great things as far as rallying the alumni around our program. We’ve just got tremendous support here, which makes my job here as the head coach awesome. Just to have the people that truly have a love and desire for SIU baseball.”
That support carries a lot of weight coming from the last SIU team to make the NCAA Tournament. However, everyone involved – from players and coaches to fans and alumni – is ready to see that accomplishment overwritten in the record book, as the modern Salukis have done with other milestones in recent years.
“We hear and talk about it all the time,” Rhodes said. “We want to get over the hump and get back into Regional play. It was a long time before we won the conference. Obviously we took that step and we’ve won the conference, but at the end of the day, as satisfying as that was, every single one of us… are all in the same boat. It’s not the ultimate satisfaction, because we didn’t get into a Regional, and didn’t get a chance to play for Omaha. That’s the next goal, is just to make that a reality.”
Saluki baseball will open its season on the road at Wofford on Feb. 17. The team’s first game at Itchy Jones Stadium will be Feb. 28, as it hosts one game against Saint Louis.
“I think this time of the year, you’re always anticipating what a new group of guys are going to be able to come together and do,” Rhodes said. “With the excitement that we’ve had over the last couple years in the program, just to get back out on the field and hopefully continue that success is exciting.”
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.