Salukis gear up for battle of Illinois

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By Evan Jones, @EvanJones_DE

Baseball teams spread across the state of Illinois will converge in Carbondale this weekend

Three teams will be playing six games in three days for a weekend packed full of baseball. Northern Illinois, the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois will be competing for the crown of the best team in the state.

SIU coach Ken Henderson said he looks forward to playing Illinois each year, and the addition of the Huskies adds to the competition.

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“It’s kind of a fun weekend,” he said. “It’s nice we have the relationship to keep that going. It makes for a great atmosphere.”

Illinois coach Dan Hartleb shares Henderson’s excitement for the weekend.

Hartleb played his college ball as a catcher at SIU for coach Richard “Itchy” Jones. After his two seasons as a Saluki, Jones hired Hartleb as a graduate assistant, and when Jones took the coaching job in Champaign, Hartleb went with him.

But Carbondale still has its place in the ball coach’s heart.

“I had the opportunity to meet my wife in Carbondale,” Hartleb said. “I have gotten to know [Henderson] over the previous meetings, I still support the dugout club. The rivalry is fun, but when we come here, we come to win games.”

Henderson was hired as an assistant coach the year Jones left for Champaign, so the coaches never worked together, but the two have built a relationship over 25 years of coaching against each other.

“Coach Hartleb and I, I consider us good friends,” Henderson said. “There are kids that know each other too, even if they don’t know them personally — they at least know the names.”

Friendships aside, there are baseball games to be played.

Illinois (7-7) is coming off its best season in program history. Its season ended when Vanderbilt, the 2015 NCAA runner-up, won on its home field 4-2 over the Fighting Illini.

Last season Illinois won three of the four games against the the Slaukis, including the eighteenth game of its historic 26-game win streak.

Northern Illinois (3-15) played Illinois in the first game, and the Illini won 5-3.

Illinois comes into the weekend after an 0-4 showing at the Coastal Carolina Invitational. NIU has also lost its last four games by a combined score of 38-19 before playing Illinois. SIU (9-7-1) hasn’t won its last three games, but did finish with a tie against St. John’s March 13. SIU dropped its first matchup with NIU 1-0.

Henderson said the team has been playing well, but just can’t put runs on the scoreboard.

“We’ve pitched extremely well the last three games,” he said. “That’s the way baseball goes sometimes, if you go out and play like crap and lose three games that’s another story, but we’ve been playing well.”

SIU will play Illinois at 4 p.m. Saturday at Itchy Jones Stadium.

Evan Jones can be reached at [email protected] or at (618)536-3304

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