Future Illini Landrus thriving in senior season at SJ-O

Apr. 27—ST. JOSEPH — With the rain momentarily halted on Tuesday afternoon, Luke Landrus steps out of the new indoor shed located to the left of the first-base dugout at Meier Field and gets a few throws in with his teammates.

Farmland is to his right, beyond the shed, a slow stream of traffic along Route 150 is behind him and St. Joseph-Ogden baseball's three-year-old venue is to his left.

Landrus lets a visitor know he'll be back inside the shed that was built this past fall and winter shortly, where two batting cages are set up as the rest of his teammates get some swings in after their scheduled game with Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley was rained out this particular day.

Landrus seems at ease around his teammates. At ease answering questions. Just like he is at ease in the batter's box, pitcher's mound or anywhere SJ-O coach Josh Haley puts the future Illini on the field this spring.

"This tells you everything you need to know about Luke," Haley said, beginning to list off positive attributes about his star senior inside the shed, with Landrus still outside. "We've had injuries on the mound this season. Catching is his No. 1 position, so as things developed, we had to change course a little bit and get him on the mound, which has caused him to play more second base and pitch. We take care of him, so he still gets his time behind the plate. He was more of a corner guy, third base, coming in, and he's learned how to play second base real well, so we can save him a little bit. He was our shortstop his sophomore year. As things have progressed, he just wants to win."

SJ-O has done plenty of that in the past decade-plus, with the program winning at least 21 games in all 13 of Haley's seasons leading the program.

This year is no different. Especially with Landrus living up to his status as a future Big Ten player. He committed to Dan Hartleb's program last August and signed with Illinois in November. He's attended a handful of Illinois home games this season and likes what he's seen from the current Big Ten leaders.

"They're playing really well, and I can't wait to get there," said Landrus, who will likely vie for playing time at catcher with the Illini but could also play third base or in the outfield. "I go to the games and see how I've got to be next year and what I need to do. It's great that they're close, so I can watch them play."

But before he gets too far ahead about how he'd look in an Illinois uniform in 2025, Landrus is focused on his final season with the Spartans. And what a season they're having. SJ-O carries a 23-2 record into an Illini Prairie Conference home showdown with Monticello — the Sages are also 23-2 — at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Meier Field.

Landrus will bring a .486 average, three home runs, 33 RBI, 39 runs scored, an on-base percentage of .579, a slugging percentage of .797, an OPS of 1.376, six doubles, four triples and 17 stolen bases into Monday's game. Oh, he's also walked 18 times and only struck out four in 74 at-bats nearly two-thirds of the way into the season.

Having his college home settled last fall allowed the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Landrus to enter his final season of high school baseball with a renewed purpose.

"You can play with a clear mind and not have to worry about where you're going or if you don't do good in a game," Landrus said. "It just lets you play more freely."

Haley hit Landrus, a three-year starter with the Spartans after he transferred from Charleston before his sophomore season, in the leadoff spot last season. This season, he has moved him down a spot to the No. 2 hole that he was in during his sophomore season and is putting up better offensive numbers than he ever has with the Spartans.

"Pitchers definitely attack him a little bit differently because everybody knows he's going to Illinois," said Braxton Waller, SJ-O's No. 3 hitter who is signed with Danville Area Community College and is hitting .538 with four home runs and 48 RBI. "I have a lot of confidence because if I get an extra-base hit, he's probably scoring from first base."

SJ-O used Landrus in a reliever role, sometimes closing out games, last season. This year, though, he's getting the ball to start games and the right-hander has come through with a 6-0 record, 1.06 earned run average and a team-high 43 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings pitched to settle in as the Spartans' No. 2 starter behind junior Nolan Earley (3-0, 1.03 ERA, 40 strikeouts).

"It's fun," Landrus said about pitching more. "I like playing multiple positions. I feel like an athlete."

He showcased his athleticism as a starter on the SJ-O boys' basketball team that finished 27-7 this past winter under coach Kiel Duval, won an outright Illini Prairie title and advanced to the Sweet 16 in Class 2A.

"Playing basketball helped me," Landrus said. "I got faster and more athletic. Coach Duval taught me how to compete. The guys on the team were great. It was nice."

One of his teammates in both basketball and baseball, fellow senior Tanner Jacob, said Landrus is the best athlete he's ever played with in any sport. Jacob, hitting .338 with one home run, 20 RBI and a team-high 18 stolen bases, hits leadoff in front of Landrus and said he's noticed a change in Landrus since he signed with Illinois. In a good way.

"I've seen him grow out of his shell the longer he's been at St. Joe," Jacob said. "He's always been focused, especially with baseball since that's his thing, but he's been a lot more loose after signing with Illinois."

Landrus still has two full weeks left in the regular season before postseason play arrives in mid-May. His first season at SJ-O in 2022 saw the Spartans advance to a sectional title game, but last season, Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin pulled an upset in a regional semifinal game and ended SJ-O's postseason after only one game. He doesn't want a repeat of that this year, with SJ-O trying to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2017.

"It's my last year," Landrus said. "I'm just trying to have fun, get wins and see how far we can go."