Neuqua’s Blackburn picks Illini
Updated: August 10, 2011 9:17PM
In 13 varsity seasons, Neuqua Valley quickly has earned a reputation for having quality starting pitching.
Former Neuqua Valley pitching standouts the likes of John Fumagalli, Burke Baldwin, Ian Krol and Mike McKinley have been big reasons why the Wildcats have been constant threats in the postseason, culminating with back-to-back state tournament appearances in 2007-08.
Consider Nick Blackburn as an addition to that lineage and history.
Orally committing to play at the University of Illinois on Tuesday night, Blackburn becomes the latest Wildcat to earn a scholarship from a BCS school, joining Fumagalli, Krol, Geoff Rowan and McKinley.
“I never thought I’d be used in the same sentence as anybody like Ian Krol or Mike McKinley,” Blackburn said. “When I was in middle school, I’d go to the Neuqua games and watch them play. Those are the pitchers that I wanted to be like.
“Mike McKinley is just a great pitcher. Good fastball, really good offspeed. It’s guys like him and Ian – that’s what I strived to be like when I first tried out for the Neuqua team. Freshman year, I wanted to develop and become just like they did.”
In the two weeks since he and his teammates saw their summer state tournament run conclude with a pair of losses in the 2011 Phil Lawler Summer Classic, Blackburn finally was able to get down to business regarding his recruitment.
He took a visit down to Champaign shortly after Neuqua Valley’s summer season ended and chose the Illini over scholarship offers from both Purdue and Indiana while also receiving interest from both Notre Dame and UIC.
“I’m ecstatic at that’s where he’s going,” Neuqua Valley coach Robin Renner said. “Maybe I’m old, but if a kid has a chance to go to his own state school like that, I think that’s a great opportunity – a great, great opportunity.”
Blackburn, ranked as the 26th best Illinois player in the Class of 2012 by Prep Baseball Report, will join Rowan in the Big Ten.
Rowan, a senior catcher at Northwestern, and McKinley, a junior right-hander who initially went to Indiana before transferring to Heartland Community College and currently is now at UIC, were both members of Neuqua Valley’s 2007 Class AA state championship outfit that went 35-8.
“It’s exciting,” Renner said. “We got Geoff Rowan playing in the Big Ten right now. That’s amazing. I think it’s great. If my own son had a chance to play at the University of Illinois, I’d be the happiest dad in the world. I couldn’t be happier for Nick.”
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Blackburn went 4-3 with a 4.70 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings last spring as a junior and went 2-0 with a 0.93 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 15 innings during the summer state tournament, earning victories over both Hinsdale South and St. Joseph.
In his complete-game victory over St. Joseph on July 25, he fanned 10 despite having his 24-inning scoreless streak in the summer state tournament snapped.
He becomes the second highly-ranked player to offer his pledge to Illinois coach Dan Hartleb in as many days, joining Harrisburg junior right-handed pitcher and shortstop Ryne Rope, Prep Baseball Report’s top-ranked Illinois prospect in the Class of 2013 and the MVP in Prep Baseball Report’s Midwest Future Games, held last weekend in Lisle.
This past year, Illinois won at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 2005 while winning the Big Ten tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000.
“They really know a lot about the game,” Blackburn said of Hartleb and his staff. “They’re definitely doing the right thing. They’re Big Ten champions. Obviously, they know what they’re doing there.”