CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Cole Kirschsieper knows the path to be a starter isn’t always easy. The Illinois pitcher has worked hard to get to where he is now; the team’s ace and Friday night go-to-guy. The Illini (26-19, 12-6 B1G) are 8-4 overall in games Kirschsieper has started.

“That was always a goal of mine,” Kirschsieper said about becoming a starter.

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound lefthander started some Sunday games as a true freshman, winning three times, but mainly appeared out of the bullpen. His goal all along was to be in the rotation full-time, so when COVID-19 cut his first season of college ball short, he had a heart-to-heart with pitching coach Mark Allen about how to improve during the pandemic.

“He asked me if I wanted to be the same pitcher or potentially a draft prospect one day and it was completely up to me,” Kirschsieper said. “And that’s when I told him that I’d be a draft prospect or change to be a draft prospect.”

Kirschsieper took the conversation and advice seriously, changing his mechanics to improve his velocity and movement on his pitches. After more relief appearances last season, Kirschsieper broke through last summer. He only allowed one run in 33 innings in the Cape Cod and Appalachian leagues, paving the way to become the Friday night starter this spring for the Illini. He also checked off another goal becoming a Top 5 MLB Draft prospect in the Big Ten with his summer showing. Perfect Game ranked him No. 4 coming into the season, with D1Baseball pegging him at No. 5. Kirschsieper has only added to that with a strong season so far, his 2.93 ERA is currently sixth-best in the conference.

“Just going out there and doing my thing each and everyday when I get the ball is what’s important to me,” Kirschsieper said. “One of my biggest goals also was being one of the best left handed pitchers in the country.”

“He did little things both physically and then mentally as well, so he’s improved in all areas,” Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said. “He’s continued to work hard each and every day. He’s an unbelievable person and has got a vision of what he wants to do and he also has a calm about him. There’s a lot of different things that he’s done to improve himself that’s helped our team tremendously.”

With six Big Ten games remaining in the regular season, Illinois is tied for third in the league with Iowa at 12-6, but hold a tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes after taking two out of three games against them last month in Iowa City. The Top 8 teams in the conference receive an invite to the Big Ten tournament May 25-29 in Omaha, Nebraska.