There’s still plenty of snow on the ground and the thermometer still is dipping below zero at times, but Illinois colleges are playing baseball, a sure sign that spring …
Nah, I’m not buying it, either.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Eastern Illinois sophomore Jake Johansmeier of St. Charles already has an Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week award to his credit this season. The St. Charles North grad received the honor after starting and getting the win in the Panthers’ season-opening, 5-1 victory at No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I just went out and executed my gameplan,” Johansmeier said. “It was a great start to the year and kind of got everyone excited about what we’re capable of doing this year.”
Johansmeier pitched six innings and allowed one run on three hits. He struck out four and walked three. The right-hander retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced and didn’t surrender a hit until the fifth against the Ragin’ Cajuns, who led the nation in home runs last year.
Since the opening win, Eastern Illinois has dropped seven straight, but all of those losses have come against teams ranked in the NCAA Division I Top 25.
“Nobody in our conference is as good as these teams,” Johansmeier said. “We’re having guys seeing better pitchers than we’re going to see in the OVC. … We’re all pretty confident we’re going to get top of the conference.”
The Panthers were picked to finish seventh in the 11-team league in a preseason poll of coaches and sports information directors. Defending regular-season conference champion Tennessee Tech was projected to repeat.
Eastern Illinois finished in seventh place in the conference standings last season with an 11-17 record in league play, but the Panthers won six of their final 10 games, fueling optimism for this year.
Johansmeier posted a 3-4 record as a freshman with a 3.70 ERA.
He held opponents to a .249 batting average while striking out 33 in 48⅔ innings of work. He made 20 appearances, starting eight of them.
“I started off in the bullpen as a closer, but some of the guys got hurt,” he said. “I just kind of went out and threw the ball and see what happens.”
Johansmeier seemed to have things pretty well figured out by the time conference play rolled around.
He had a team-best 3.27 ERA in league action and held opposing batters to a .222 average.
“[In] college baseball you have to have more control and better off-speed pitches than you did in high school,” Johansmeier said. “In high school, you can throw a fastball right by people. You have to be able to hit your spots [in college], otherwise, they’re going to hit it hard somewhere.”
Johansmeier was a solid hitter in high school, but he has yet to make a plate appearance in college.
“It’s hard at times not being able to grab a bat and go up and hit,” he said. “[But] it’s just as important for me to be in the dugout with everyone and root for them.”
Johansmeier looked at Northern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, Ball State and Virginia Tech before settling on Eastern Illinois.
“It just felt right,” he said. “I was pretty sure that I would have a role coming in as a freshman.
“Coming out of high school … having the opportunity to come in and prove yourself to your coach and teammates is kind of what everybody wants.”
• Dennis D. Jacobs has covered sports for newspapers in five different decades. To suggest local college athletes deserving recognition in the On Campus column, email him at email@example.com.