Two more-than-capable catchers a luxury for Illinois

May 6—CHAMPAIGN — Camden Janik played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2022 playing behind Jacob Campbell and Ryan Hampe.

But there were real flashes from Janik that spring in his limited role, which included one start. The Wauconda graduate hit .385 with a pair of home runs in consecutive late April games. Janik was also a spotless defender behind the plate with zero errors.

So Illinois looked set at catcher ahead of the 2023 season with neither Campbell nor Hampe returning. It didn't stop Illini coach Dan Hartleb from bolstering the position, though, bringing in a veteran catcher in John A. Logan College transfer Jacob Schroeder, who started his career with two seasons at Northern Illinois.

"I was here a year before Schroeder, so it's always kind of an area for concern when they bring in another guy, but Schroeder, from day one, has been awesome," Janik said. "It's been great to feed off each other offensively and defensively. There's no concern there. It's obviously a great feeling to know when I'm not playing there's another great catcher back there. It's been great to have that confidence to know we have multiple catchers that can do great things."

Hartleb had an easy solution to the two-catcher situation in 2023. Play them both. When Janik caught the game, Schroeder served as designated hitter. If Schroeder was behind the plate, Janik was still in the lineup in the DH role. It worked so well a year ago Hartleb ran it back this spring to even better results. Janik is Illinois' top hitter with a .379 average to go along with six home runs and 36 RBI.

Schroeder is one of three Illini with double-digit home runs, boasting a .333 average with 13 home runs and 39 RBI. And both have been steady behind the plate defensively.

"I think it's just a mutual respect between me and Janik," Schroeder said. "I'm not going to go out here throwing fits because Janik is catching and I'm not. I know Janik is really good. Obviously, he's hitting great, and he's a great catcher behind the plate. I think I'm a great catcher both sides of the ball, as well.

"Some people might think we're rivals, but he's one of my best friends on the team. It's a mutual respect, and we both understand how good we are and that we both need to be in the lineup to help the team win."

Hartleb has typically had a single catcher carry the load. Having two is something the 19th-year Illinois coach called a luxury.

"They've both proven offensively we've got to get them in the lineup," Hartleb said. "Neither one of them are a liability behind the plate. It's easy just to alternate them game by game."

Janik started at catcher in Friday's night's series-opening 7-5 loss to Ohio State at Illinois Field. Schroeder donned the leg and chest protectors and mask in Saturday's 10-5 win before Janik went back behind the plate for Sunday's 12-2 win that saw Illinois move into solo first place in the Big Ten standings with six conference games left.

Every other day of the week — essentially — is spent together. Janik, Schroeder and fellow catcher Gavin Bennett are basically joined at the hip in practice. Going through the same drills with Hartleb not making their life all that easy.

"We go through it with Coach Hartleb," Schroeder said. "He's hard on us on our catching drills. That kind of builds our relationship as we go through stuff together. We give each other points — things we need to work on — all the time. It's pretty open ears with everyone. No one's getting offended. We just help each other get better."

Hartleb was a catcher himself in college at Southern Illinois. His ability to bring that perspective to his trio of catchers makes a difference compared to working with a coach without a background at the position.

"There can be a lot of thought discrepancies there," Janik said about the latter. "It's huge to have him. He beats us up for sure. He'll be the first one to say. He beats us up and puts us through the work, but you can see it in the games. We don't really get maybe as tired as other catchers, and we have higher expectations for ourselves and higher expectations for each other to be able to perform at the highest level."

Hartleb said both Janik and Schroeder are athletic behind the plate. Both can control the running game — Schroeder threw out an Ohio State base runner trying to steal Saturday — and both are leaders.

"I just feel like they take command back there," Hartleb said.

But that doesn't mean they're carbon copies behind the plate or at it. Janik described Schroeder as a "big power, gap-to-gap guy" at the plate. His own approach, even though he's got some pop, is to spray the ball around the field. Schroeder is quick to point out Janik's athleticism and strength behind the plate.

"He's in the weight room all the time," Schroeder continued. "He holds everyone accountable. He's always getting on pitchers to be better, to make better pitches. All around, he's a really good catcher."

"I would describe him as a leader through and through," Janik countered. "He blocks a ton of balls. He also has one of the strongest arms I've ever seen back there. He's just an all-around catcher. I would say he's really good at making everything a strike. Pitchers love throwing to him."