As Northwestern and University of Illinois-Chicago are both in the Chicago metro area, they seem a natural pairing for a Cheer Local article. Depending on where you live, if you are in the city, either could be somewhat accessible by mass transit, should that be of interest. However, to be honest, either team might be more of a “labor of love” than a likely good post-season seeding. I’ll begin with the Flames, then look at the Wildcats.
To be qualified for an automatic bid, a college conference needs to have at least six member teams. The Horizon League, which encompasses UIC Flames, has exactly six. Two are in Ohio, one is in Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the Flames in Chicago. With the limited numbers, and a few schools down the list of marquee, the teams at the top have a decent shot at qualifying in the one-bid league.
Why is the Horizon a one-bid league? To have a second bid, one of the teams would have to dominate the league, their pre-league schedule, and lose the tournament. Seeing as all the teams will have to head south to start the campaign, they have two options. Play a rugged schedule, or take some relatively easy non-conference wins. The prior is very tough to do, and the latter doesn’t impress the voters.
To win enough to get an at-large chance, teams from the Horizon would not only have to visit the baseball meccas, but win the series often enough to climb the rankings. Yeah, the top Horizon squad is unlikely to steal a bid from the ACC, SEC, or Big 12. As such, their safest shot is to plan to win the conference tournament.
Last season, the Flames lost an entire series due to weather in mid-April, and another in mid-May. It’s tough putting together a team with chops in the northern Midwest. The further north, the tougher it gets. However, UIC recruits well, and has many of their home games streamed on the ESPN family of networks. Having the Chicago skyline as the batter’s eye background looks impressive. Nonetheless, Chicago is a bit cold, quite often, until the college season ends.
The Flames were the second-best side in the Horizon last season. Seeing the 30-18 record hints at quite a few games being lost to weather, with 56 being a full schedule. Their team ERA was a rather stunning 2.99 in 2018. They had four players drafted, and three were pitchers. All four signed. Apparently, scouts were tracking the Flames, whether we were, or not.
Last season’s pitching staff was very veteran. Jacob Key returns. Beyond that, coach Mike Dee’s staff will have to replace quite a few outs. The offense, which hit .267 and homered about once every other game, remains more intact. Catcher Aaron Ackerman is gone (26th round to the Dodgers), but leading bats Scott Ota and Dominic Smith return.
One oddity with the Horizon League is that they limit their tournament field to the top four teams. As a one-bid league, this is a reasonable call. Along with a six-team tournament being a bit inconvenient, a four team field shortens the need for tournament pitching. When a team that might struggle to have a fourth (midweek) starter needs to go to a fifth starter in the loser’s bracket, it can make for some unappetizing action.
With the four-team bracket, after the teams have used their Friday and Saturday starters, one team is 2-0, two are 1-1, and one is eliminated. As such, in the Horizon League, being able to win those first two by any means necessary is paramount. If you track a Horizon League school, be mindful of that. Wright State (Dayton, Ohio) is the other traditional tough out in the Horizon.
Aaaaaah, the Northwestern Wildcats. They’ve gotten quite respectable in football and basketball over the last decade or so. However, baseball remains quite dependent on weather. With the high admission requirements, good baseball players who qualify to attend school in Evanston could punch their ticket about anywhere. Including schools in much warmer climates.
The 2018 Wildcats finished 12th in the Big Ten in baseball. The Big Ten is about a five-bid conference. If you select the Wildcats, I hope you aren’t expecting a rush to the top of the league. Eight teams qualify for the conference tournament in baseball. Qualifying for the conference tourney would be an achievement.
If you’re still reading, they have a few players worth minding. Jack Dunn, Willie Bourbon, and Alex Erro are legitimate Big Ten hitters. Erro stole 17 bases, and walked (23) more than he struck out (21) in 2018. That sounds like a Theo Epstein type player to me. Bourbon hit six homers, and Dunn hit over .300. If they want to play pro ball, they’ll very possibly get a chance.
The team batting average (despite the above three) was .250, and they hit 28 homers in 49 games. The team ERA was 6.19, which is how you get outscored by 94 runs in 49 games. Their weekend rotation returns intact, and that figures to be a needed area of improvement to qualify.
The Flames and Wildcats are both tolerable follows, if you know what you’re getting into. If defending the city is important to you, pick one, and take in a game when it gets warm. However, if you want to track a team with four or five legitimate second-day draft picks, you might want to look elsewhere. When looking for a decent pair of shoes, make sure you get one that fits you.
I think the state schools are about done. I have a request in for the Florida Gators. Southern Miss likely gets next. Requests or “directory assistance” questions are welcomed. And, no. I still can’t tell you who will be a bona fide ace from this class in 2024.