NASHVILLE, TENN. | Rolling down the highway toward the country music capital of the world, Sioux Cityan David Kerian sensed the excitement.
No, Kerian and his University of Illinois teammates won’t be taking in any shows at the Grand Ole Opry, but they couldn’t wait to arrive in Nashville, Tenn.
Illinois (34-18) will play Georgia Tech (34-25) in the NCAA baseball Nashville Regional today at 1:05 p.m. at Hawkins Field.
Kerian, a sophomore from Bishop Heelan High School, is the Fighting Illini first baseman, ranking second on the team with a .324 batting average.
“We’re all excited about it,” said Kerian in a phone interview while en route to Nashville. “We were a little nervous about getting in as an at-large, but we feel we have a pretty good team and we’ll see if we can do some damage.
“We’re hoping to get on a nice little run. We only need to win five to get to Omaha and that’s always been a dream of mine.”
After getting unceremoniously dumped from the Big Ten Tournament by Minnesota, the Illini was an at-large pick for its second NCAA Regional in three seasons.
Kerian, the No. 2 hitter in the order, is not your prototypical first baseman. His only home run – the only one of his collegiate career – was an inside-the-park job during a 4-for-4 performance against Purdue on April 12 when he drove in six runs.
Instead, the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder does his best to simply put the ball in play in order to advance the runner.
“It depends on the situation,” said the 20-year-old son of Steve and Tina Kerian of Dakota Dunes. “If somebody is on first, I try to hit the ball to the second baseman to get that baserunner over. If I’m ahead on the count, I’m looking for a fastball and if I’m behind (on the count) I’m looking at all fields, trying to drive the ball and maybe make the defense mess up and do something with my speed.”
Hitting has never been a problem for Kerian, who batted .508 with 14 home runs, 44 RBI and a 1.038 slugging percentage in his senior season at Heelan in 2011.
But, like most players making the jump from high school to college, he went through some growing pains.
Appearing in 22 games, four in which he started at designated hitter, Kerian hit just .192.
“We saw the potential when he was recruited,” Illinois Coach Dan Hartleb said. “We thought he would hit well. Dave got some playing time last year but it was a typical freshman thing, he had his ups and downs.
“He played a ton over the summer and continued to make adjustments in the fall. He’s grown up a lot mentally and continues to make progress. We’re pleased with his progress and what he’s been able to do.”
Despite learning a brand new position, Kerian earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. His 20 stolen bases ranked fifth in the league this season.
“They gave me a first baseman’s mit last fall, but I had never played first base before,” said Kerian, who played mainly second and shortstop in high school. “It hasn’t been that big of an adjustment, but it took a little bit of getting used to. I have to pay attention on every pitch and the hardest part was keeping my foot on the bag (when taking throws).”
“His bat deserved to be in the lineup and unselfishly he moved over to first base,” Hartleb said. “Dave’s not a big slugger, but he’s got good feet and hands and he’s a guy who can move around.
“He’s come up with some big hits, has gap power and steals bases. We’ve seen his production improve each and every day.”
The Washington Nationals selected Kerian in the 42nd round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft. However, he wasn’t heavily recruited and wound up donning an Illini uniform.
“The coaches here are great and the school is amazing,” said Kerian, a communications major. “Although it’s pretty far from home, I think it’s a good fit for me.”
Kerian excelled in three sports at Heelan, playing on two state championship basketball teams and a state runner-up football team. Baseball, though, was always his first love.
A lot of that had to do with his father, Steve, a former standout on world-class fast-pitch softball teams in the Sioux City area.
“My dad has been a tremendous influence on me my entire life, not just in baseball,” Kerian said. “He’s worked with my swing, my fielding and has been my mentor. It was hard for him last year seeing me not play very much, but we had a great summer. He and my brother are driving to Nashville to watch us play.”
Kerian spent last summer playing in Springfield, Ill., in the Prospects League. This summer, he will play for the Waterloo Bucks of the Northwoods League.
Kerian is one of just four players on the Illinois roster not hailing from the state of Illinois.
The Illini finished fifth in the Big Ten with a 14-10 record.
Vanderbilt, the host school and No. 1 seed with a 51-9 record, will face East Tennessee State (36-22) in the other first-round game in the double-elimination regional. The 16 regional winners move on to super-regional play.