Brendan Illies has been on a wild ride over the last 12 months.
After all that this former Puyallup High Viking went through, nothing seems to deter where he wants to go with his baseball career.
It’s likely the mentality established from being a leader in one of the top high school baseball programs for several years that pushes Illies. It also might come from being a catcher with great ambition for himself on and off the diamond.
“I just learned never to settle,” Illies said last week via phone from North Carolina. “It comes from the lessons I learned while playing under coach (Marc) Wiese, and playing for Puyallup. It’s about improving yourself day by day — that’s the same goal everyone has here.”
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Now enrolled in summer courses at the University of North Carolina while also spending time with the Tar Heel baseball team’s current freshman class, Illies is putting to work the life lessons he gained from the ballfields.
Heading into an environment that expects its baseball program to be toward the top of the ACC each year, Illies feels he’s ready to help the Tar Heels become a top national program again.
“I want to help us win our league and get into the playoffs in (each) season I’m here,” Illies said. “We’re working now as a team to reach that goal … everyone here has the same goals.”
At this point last summer, Illies was at a different place in his high school career. Having put up some of incredible numbers during his Puyallup High football career, tough choices were made.
Illies ultimately put his football career aside and picked up his catcher’s gear full time. The rationality of the decision was about doing what was best for the future.
“I came to the decision, then, that baseball was my future,” he said.
Football was a great part of Illies’ athletic life. It was a piece of his high school experience, nights under the lights of Sparks Stadium, launching touchdown pass after touchdown pass. It was an incredible time for this former Viking.
But baseball is Illies’ life.
“I kind of always knew it was. My decision last year was to focus on my school work and baseball,” he said.
Winning the 2014 Class 4A state baseball championship as a junior was great, but Illies didn’t have the final season he wanted.
At times, Illies struggled or pressed at the plate, forcing him out of his comfort zone. The hiccups during his senior season has motivated Illies like he’s never been motivated before.
“I didn’t have the season I knew I could put together,” Illies said. “I worked hard in the offseason to have a better season — it was my last year, and I wanted to go out and finish my (high school) career the way I wanted to, and use that momentum heading here (UNC).”
If there was a theme to encapsulate Illies as a baseball player, it could be one of great resolve. A player with the ability to take a rational view of himself and improve where he feels there’s a need.
It’s an ability to look at one’s self without remorse, trying to become the best version himself behind the plate.
“I always feel there’s something I need to improve,” Illies said. “Baseball is a game where you want to always improve.”
Illies was always a strong defensive catcher during his time at Puyallup. Handling the Vikings’ pitching staff requires nothing less from a catcher, but Illies took that to another level.
“I want to make defense the strongest part of my game,” he once said.
And that desire has made his transition to the collegiate level all the more easier, because every pitcher on the UNC staff would be an ace in high school.
“There’s definitely a difference — I could tell from catching my first bullpen,” Illies said. “They throw harder and there’s more movement on their pitches.”
Even after crediting his work ethic to be able to develop the chance to catch such strong pitching, Illies still feels there’s room to improve. It’s just who he is as a ballplayer.
“I’ll use the time now and in the fall to get better and get stronger for spring,” Illies said. “They expect a lot out of you both as a student and as an athlete.”
Illies is in the thick of learning the collegiate ropes. Life’s not as simple as it once was as he navigates through his world at UNC.
And it’s alright with him, even if there’s early struggles in his English 105 class, because in the end, Illies will get to where he wants to go.
“It’s difficult having to learn everything in five weeks,” Illies said. “It’s going to get tougher for me in the fall when school starts up (full time) … I’ll always be doing something, either working on school work, at the tutor or with the team.
“I’ll be busy all the time, but it’s about reaching that goal as a team.”
And about that goal to never settle.
In the 2015 Major League Baseball first year player draft, Brendan Illies was drafted in the 33rd round (pick 989) by the New York Mets. Illies thoughts on the MLB drafting process: “It was a hectic experience to go through ... It was great that I got to go through it in high school and I’ll get to go through that process again (in the future).”
And next time Illies goes through the draft, he won’t make the same mistake twice.
“I missed the phone call when I was drafted ... next time I’ll be there when they call,” Illies laughed off.