The 2019 season for the Rantoul Eagles baseball team will officially start on Thursday at Wabash Park against Bloomington with the first pitch scheduled to be at 4:30 p.m.

This year the Eagles will have 14 players on its varsity roster. Of those 15 players, seven are seniors: Adam Crites, Emmanuel Lutes, Nolan Roseman, Hunter Hoffman, Hayden Cargo, Norlyn Stewart and William Wake. Also on the team are juniors; Nolan Riddle, Maycoll Paredes, Eli Remington and Casey Dillman. The three remaining players on the team are sophomores Jaxson Freeman, Jake Lykins and Drew Duden.

Rantoul head coach Jon Donovan made it clear that this season he will be paying attention to the culture of the dugout, which means he is looking for his players to put in the work however they can.

"We are thinking about our production, such as the defense making plays, pitchers throwing strikes and collecting outs," Donovan said. "But I am looking for effort. Everybody has a role, which changes day to day. That role is just doing your job and helping any way that they can."

Donovan has been working on evaluating potential deficiencies for his team, focusing on areas like offensive production, which was a challenge for Donovan as he is more experienced with working on defense.

"I looked at offensive stats from last year and knew that we were losing roughly 60 RBI between two players that graduated," Donovan said. "I am a defensive-minded coach. Putting offense first was something I knew I had to do. It was hard."

One of the main things that will affect the team’s lineup will be the starting pitcher. All of the players who pitch for the team also play other positions.

"It impacts the defense because each of these pitchers are all position players," said Alan Jones Jr., Rantoul assistant coach. "So when you have an ace like Adam Crites, he normally plays third-base, so you got to know who is the next guy to take that spot while he pitches. It’s the same with Nolan Roseman. He consistently throws strikes, but he’s also a tremendously talented center fielder."

Jones has been a volunteer assistant coach on the team with Donovan for six years. Jones said that the team will develop over the season because of Donovan’s program teaches integrity and discipline.

"When you look at the different aspects of the game and how these kids will be taught to come together and play," Jones said. "You will find that he brings that directive and leadership to them. We want to have success within all of those different points."

Another volunteer assistant coach will be Thomas Wolken, a former player in the Rantoul baseball program until he graduated in 2015. Wolken played at Kankakee Community College, where he was on the 2017 national championship team.

The coaching staff was focused during the team’s practice on training players to be able to play more than one position in case if one player is unable to keep playing a position then they can be replaced.

"If we ask you what position you play as new guys coming in the program, they need one answer," Donovan said. "Anywhere you need us, coach. And if they are uncomfortable playing in a position where we need them then it’s our job to teach them how to play that position, so they are confident."

Another reason that players need to be able and ready to play multiple positions is that the roster isn’t as big compared to previous years.

"Our numbers are running low, so then we pretty much have to be able to play all position at all times," Crites said. "We always got to be ready. Anybody on the bench can be called up on any given time."

Roseman said that as seniors, it’s not exactly their role to be the leaders of the team but to make sure everyone is fulfilling their responsibility no matter what their position. "Everybody is accountable and knows what to do," Roseman said. "We’re just there to keep pushing them and making sure they are focused."

Considering that many players will most likely be rotating through positions, that can create a potential predicament for Rantoul pitchers and their playing ability.

"We got to protect our arms," Donovan said. "If we put our best out there to throw, pitch and we put them in a position the next day where potentially it could be dangerous for them, then we are not doing our job as coaches."

Donovan also emphasized what he expects from his team when it comes to performing both on the field and in the classroom.

"If I ask one of the players, ‘how do you think you are going to do on that test’ and they answer ‘I hope I do okay,’" Donovan said. "That tells me that they didn’t prepare. The same thing carries over to the field. We expect to do well, whoever we are playing. If things don’t go well, then we are going to make adjustments."

Donovan is content with how his players have interacted with each other as a team as well, as their performances both on the field and in the classroom

"They are a good group of guys with good personalities," Donovan said. "They also have good characteristics about them as far as playing the game. They work hard. They are good teammates and that’s what we focus on within our culture."

Contact Ben Theobald at btheobald@rantoulpress.com