COLLEGE CHECK-IN: McDonald 'an asset' during freshman season with Illini

Hall graduate and University of Illinois freshman Cam McDonald prepares to throw the ball into the infield during a game this season. McDonald started every game for the Fighting Illini and led the team in RBIs.

Photo courtesy Illinois Athletics/ Andy Wenstrand

Editor’s note: This is the first of a summer series in which the NewsTribune will catch up with area athletes who are playing in college.

University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb did not hesitate when he was asked if Hall graduate Cam McDonald is one of those freshman he looks at and tells himself, ‘I’m glad I recruited him.’

“Oh absolutely. He’s an asset to the program,” said Hartleb, who wrapped up his 14th season with the Fighting Illini ranked No. 20 in the nation. “Cam came in from the start and did a good job of working very, very hard. He had a good attitude and was open to making adjustments. He was very coachable and he has a really good personality. We moved him around to different positions and he showed the ability to do a number of different things.

“We got through the fall and individual workouts and continued to make strides. We went into our foreign trip (to Curacao and Aruba) and we were able to play him in a number of different positions trying to find a spot where we thought we could get him and some other freshmen on the field possibly.”

McDonald played at third base for the first eight games, went to left field for two weeks and then center field for 16 games.

The former Red Devil returned to left field, which he manned for about 35 games during his freshman campaign.

Oh, he played first base for two games also.

No matter where he was on the field, McDonald was enjoying the ride.

“It was pretty crazy. The older guys were helping in the beginning because it was pretty surreal when you get there, especially the first weekend when we went to Wake Forrest. I was pretty nervous that weekend,” McDonald said. “Guys like Michael Massey and Jack Yalowitz (who were selected in the MLB Draft) helped with the nerves because they’ve all been there. They were freshmen at one point and played a lot. They helped me realize it’s just another game and it’s like playing in high school.

“I thought it was pretty cool that I got to play all of those different positions this year because it shows that I can play anywhere on the field and even if I’m struggling at the plate I can still play anywhere.”

McDonald had a batting average of .281 (63-for-224) with four doubles, a triple, a home run and 34 runs batted in. His 63 hits are tied for sixth most hits by an Illinois freshman and his 34 RBIs were a team best.

For his accomplishments, McDonald was an All-Big Ten Conference Freshman Team outfielder and an Illinois Athletics Male Freshman of the Year finalist.

“The way he’s wired, the makeup he has and also the talent he has, he’s been able to make the big jump,” said Hall coach Tom Keegan, who led McDonald and the Red Devils to a Class 2A state championship in 2018. “I had a feeling if he stayed between the lines, he’d take care of himself. Leaving on a Thursday for a road trip and not returning until Sunday can be tough, but it seems like he is doing pretty good for himself.”

Although he had great stats and being named to the Big Ten freshman team and an Illinois Freshman of the Year finalist is definitely great for the resume, McDonald was proud of another accomplishment.

He was the only Illini to start all 57 games.

“It was awesome being able to start every game,” said McDonald, who attended Hall’s sectional championship game and is in contact with former Red Devils Ty Rybarczyk and Brant Vannaman everyday. “Honestly, my goal coming in was I wanted to give myself a chance to play. Actually being able to start every game was a pretty cool accomplishment.

“I didn’t even know about the freshman of the year award until my mom (Julie McDonald) — she has my email, too — saw it first and told me I was nominated for an award. I was like, ‘Really?’ It was awesome to be up there with guys like Ayo Dosunmu (men’s basketball) and other studs who broke Illinois records their freshman year.”

His first year was one for the record books and one to make himself and his family happy.

However, he isn’t done pushing himself to become a better ball player.

“I’m looking at this year like I had an average year in the Big Ten,” McDonald said. “I want to take my game to the next level. I want to be a leader on the team next year. We lost a lot of really good players in the draft this year. I want to take my game to the level that some of those guys were at.”

Hartleb liked the way McDonald transitioned from high school to NCAA Division I baseball and the way he made adjustments throughout the year.

The long-tenured coach said McDonald will have to continue to make those adjustments as the years go on, but with the traits his freshman showed him this season, he knows it won’t be a problem.

“I thought mentality wise he did a really good job,” Hartleb said. “It’s not easy to make that jump. Some guys don’t handle it very well. Most freshmen right at the beginning are a deer in headlights. He got rid of that in a hurry. I was really pleased with his progress, his attitude and how he went about his business the entire year.”

“He’s a great person. There are a lot of things. You have your athletic ability. You have your academics. You have your personality and who you are. He’s got everything in line. He’s done a good job in all areas. I think he’ll continue to grow and he has the ability to be a great player. I enjoy him being on the team and am excited to watch his progress the next few years.”

Brandon LaChance can be reached at 220-6995, or sports@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_LaChance.

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