Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago there was one athlete everyone knew, his name was Ryan Hogan. Hogan played basketball at Deerfield and was a stud. I still recall stories of Rick Pitino arriving in a limo to Deerfield High School to get Hogan to commit. I played pickup against Hogan once, right around the time he left Iowa (transferred there after Kentucky). He was awesome, although I did take him off the dribble a few times. But since Hogan, athletes have been coming out of the area and making noise. Jon Scheyer and Jason Kipnis are perfect examples. Now meet Wes Braun. Wes, no relation to Ryan Braun, is the younger brother of my friend Jen. I saw on Facebook what Wes and the Fighting Illini baseball team had been doing and I knew I had to get an interview. Turns out Wes is a good guy, smart, a fraternity brother of mine, and becoming quite the pitcher. Below is Wes' story. It is safe to say The Great Rabbino will be following his progress. Maybe Israel's WBC team has found its closer.
1) Tell TGR a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Deerfield, Illinois. I was always pretty good at baseball and played it from the time I could physically hold a bat and throw a ball. In high school I played soccer for three years and baseball all four years. I was never the greatest athlete or most talented but always worked hard to earn playing time. I didn’t receive any division one college baseball offers so I went to University of Illinois for the education. I walked on to the varsity baseball team as a sophomore. I received my Bachelor’s degree in communication, which I had finished in three and a half years and am now pursuing my Masters in Business Administration degree. I am scheduled to receive my MBA in spring of 2012.
2) You went to Deerfield High School, like other great athletes including Colt Cabana and Jessica Gitles (my wife). How was your high school team and when did you know you had a chance at playing college?
My high school teams were up and down. We were always the underdogs even when we were a pretty good team; I guess that comes with being a small school. For example, my senior year we won our conference and still had to play in a play-in game to get into the state playoffs. We ended up winning the play-in game, but then lost to Stevenson in the first round of the playoffs. Personally, it was always an ambition of mine to play baseball in college, but it never looked like I was going to. Even though I was all-conference my senior year and went to the junior all-star game my junior year, I never seemed to be in demand for college programs. When I was going through the recruiting process, I did not get a lot of interest from large programs— specifically, no division one teams contacted me. I was in talks with a few division three teams, but I was trying to find a college that was a right fit for me academically as well as for baseball ,which was extremely difficult to find that balance. In the end, I chose to go to the University of Illinois for academic reasons instead of playing baseball at a division three school. When I got to U of I, I tried out for the club baseball team. I did not try out for the actual varsity-team my freshman year because I did not think I would make it. I was actually originally cut from the club team, but then after asking for an extended tryout I got another shot and was selected to play on the team. I did not get a lot of playing time on the club team, but I learned a lot and it was an incredible experience for me. After a year on the club team, I decided to try out for the real varsity team my sophomore year and out of the 50-plus people that tried out I was the only one to be selected. From there I was lucky enough to play for four years on the team.
3) Illinois has been known for its basketball and every five years its football---what is it like being a part of putting baseball on the map at U of I?
To say that baseball is not well known or supported on campus is an understatement. Whenever I would invite people to my games the first question was always, “where is the baseball field?” Our contribution this year has seemingly already put baseball on the map because I have seen more t-shirts and collectibles that say Illinois Baseball on them than ever before. It is pretty exciting to be a part of a team that went further than any other Illinois baseball team in the previous decade and I hope that this season just serves as a stepping stone for the improvement of our program.
4) How did the team do this season? What was your role?
After an incredibly slow start, we ended the season on quite a run, winning the Big 10 conference and then the Big 10 tournament. We advanced to the NCAA regional tournament for the first time in 10 years and made it to the regional championship by beating Cal-State Fullerton who was ranked top ten in the country and number one in our region before being defeated by Stanford. My role on the team was as the team’s closer for which I very much excelled. I was named third team all-big 10 as a relief pitcher as I only gave up one earned run in conference. That was the only run I gave up throughout my first 18 appearances.
5) What are you plans this summer?
This summer I am still looking to play baseball. It seems as if I have generated some interest in Major League teams and I am hoping to sign a professional contract soon.
6) Are you a part of any other clubs on campus?
Besides playing for the club baseball team my freshman year, I was also a member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity.
7) What are your future plans? Is baseball a part of them?
It is difficult to fully foresee what exactly my future plans are; however, I would like to continue to play baseball as long as I possibly can. With that being said, I only have one more year to complete my MBA program and after I have received that and no longer can play baseball, I would still enjoy being able to be a part of baseball in some capacity for my career.
8) If you could start a team with Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, or Kevin Youkilis who would it be?
It would definitely have to be Ryan Braun. Besides having a great name, he has proven to become one of the top players in the entire league right now in all facets of the game.
9) Favorite Chicago pizza place?
Although I am biased to Papa Del’s here in Champaign, I would have to go with Jake’s pizza in Northbrook because their BBQ based pizza is unbelievable. Although Bella’s stuffed crust pizza in downtown is a close second.
Thanks Wes and Good Luck.
And Let Us Say...Amen.