One start after tossing a no-hitter against Sycamore, Kaneland pitcher Tyler Conklin was back on the hill at Northwestern Medicine Field in Geneva, facing Rochelle in the minor league ballpark.
Then the senior did what coach Brian Aversa said he hasn’t seen done in his long career - he threw a no-hitter in his second straight start.
That was just the kind of year the Eastern Illinois commit had in 2021, going 6-2 on the mound with a 1.95 ERA, striking out 83 in 43 innings. He also hit .329 and drove in 21 runs and was named the Interstate 8′s MVP. He’s also the Daily Chronicle 2021 Baseball Player of the Year.
“I thought I threw the ball really well,” Conklin said. “I really just wanted to pitch well obviously and hit the ball pretty well. I feel like I hit pretty well this year.”
The highlight of Conklin’s year came on consecutive Mondays in May, on which he tossed his two no-hitters in a row. First, his no-hitter led to a 1-0 win over Sycamore, a key victory that salvaged a split of the series and eventually helped the Knights overtake the Spartans for the conference championship.
Then against Rochelle under the lights at the minor league field he tossed another no-hitter.
“They were surreal moments for sure,” Conklin said. “It’s hard to put words to that, just because you don’t really think it’s going to happen, especially in back-to-back starts. I was on a roll and just threw the ball really well both games.”
Aversa said the back-to-back no-hitters are something that’s new to him in his experience as a coach.
But coming from a player like Conklin - who along with Sebastian Cabeza and Brady Popovich are hard workers, he said - it’s not surprising.
“It’s just something that doesn’t happen,” Aversa said. “It’s something people aren’t used to, but we’ll take it. He deserves it. He works his butt off. Him and Sebastian and Pop, those guys are always working.”
Conklin said the realization of the no-hitter struck him in about the fifth inning against Rochelle, when he turned around and saw the big 0 on the scoreboard.
“My adrenaline was already through the roof,” Conklin said. “Just looking up in the stands while stretching in the outfield, seeing all those people. It was crazy.”
Conklin only got one varsity season with the Knights, who reached a regional final but lost 1-0 to Hampshire with Conklin on the mound. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was not 2020 baseball season.
But Conklin said he still worked out at a facility in Sugar Grove, and his travel ball team played games in Indiana.
“Tyler was not one of those guys sitting around waiting for things to get better,” Aversa said. “He worked his butt off during that time off COVID created. He wasn’t someone like ‘Oh yeah, this is a break now.’ He worked every day at his craft and it was evident in the performances he had for us this year.”
Conklin said he got to visit Eastern Illinois before the pandemic, making his recruiting process a little easier.
“I got to visit before COVID hit, which was nice,” Conklin said. “The coaches were all open with me and we all just connected right away. I felt like this was going to be my next home.”
Aversa also said Cabeza was a big part of Conklin’s success as well. The catcher called the games himself, and Aversa said the two of them really were on the same page.
“He called games, and he called some gems,” Aversa said. “They’re cut from the same cloth. They’re two of the hardest workers on the team. Throw Brady Popovich in there as well. And those guys just battled and battled and took it upon themselves to make the team was successful this year. Tyler trusted him and it was a dynamic duo when those two when Tyler was pitching.”
Aversa said that Conklin made things easy for the team - as long as the Knights could scratch out a couple runs, he said, they were in a position to win any game he pitched.
“The good thing about Tyler is you can just give him the ball and forget about a lot of stuff,” Aversa said. “He makes things hard for the other team. He’s a great competitor. He wants to be the guy people count, depend on to get the job done.”
Conklin said he was pleased with how the year turned out.
“I really wanted to win conference, that was the biggest thing for me honestly,” Conklin said. “And honestly I wanted to make the all-conference team. That was a personal goal for me. That happened and I was pretty happy with that.”