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Illinois Baseball Season Preview: Reigning Big Ten Champions Look To Repeat

Expectations are high for the reigning Big Ten Champs in 2012.

University of Illinois Fighting Illini baseball team is coming off a very successful season in which they won the Big Ten Championship and reached the championship game of the 2011 NCAA Fullerton Regional, so expectations are high heading into 2012. The schedule opens with the Big Ten/Big East Challenge in Florida and features out of conference matchups against the Oregon State Beavers, Connecticut Huskies, St. John's Red Storm and Coastal Carolina Chanticleers -- all teams that made the NCAA tournament in 2011.

Head coach Dan Hartleb had this to say about the schedule to

"I am very excited about our 2012 season," Hartleb said. "We have a schedule that should be very conducive to a solid RPI ranking and with most of our early trips consisting of four-game weekends, we will have the opportunity to develop our pitching depth and a strong bench. The quality of our early opponents will challenge us every time we step on the field. We will be well-tested and prepared for the start of the conference season, which we open with the first Big Ten series at Nebraska."

Junior Kevin Johnson will serve as the ace of the staff, while senior Nick Chmielewski, redshirt-freshman Rob McDonnell, junior Matt Milroy, redshirt-freshman Drasen Johnson and true-freshmen John Kravetz and Josh Ferry will compete for the other jobs in the starting rotation at the beginning of the year.

As for the position players, the Illini lost five contributors from 2011 but still have some talented player. Here is a nice breakdown from on the battle at second base:

Three young players are battling for the job at second base, as redshirt-freshman Reid Roper and true-freshmen Michael Hurwitz and David Kerian are going head-to-head. Roper redshirted the 2011 campaign after suffering a knee injury during fall practice in 2010. He was a 29th-round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2010 and was ranked the No. 2 defensive infielder and No. 6 hitter in the state of Illinois in the class of 2010 by Prep Baseball Report. The switch-hitting Hurwitz was PBR's No. 58 overall prospect in the class of 2011 after hitting .355 with a .512 on-base percentage in 2011 and.438 with 27 steals in 2010. He was an All-State selection both seasons. Kerian, who comes to Illinois from Dakota Dunes, S.D., also is a switch-hitter and was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 42nd round of the 2011 MLB Draft. He hit .508 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in 2011 while leading Bishop Heelan Catholic High School to the Iowa substate championship game.

Stay tuned to SB Nation Chicago for more on Illini baseball throughout the season. For more on the Illini check out Hail to the Orange.