LOVES PARK, IL — As the players make their way to Rivets Stadium to prepare for the Rockford Rivets season opener on July 1, four of them will have a shorter drive than others as they head up north from the University of Illinois.
Fighting Illini sophomore Brody Harding and juniors Ryan Hampe, Branden Comia and Cam McDonald will take the field in Rockford this summer as they look to help the Rivets improve from their 33-39 finish in 2019.
Coming out of Moline High School, Harding was ranked the No. 2 shortstop in Illinois and the No. 51 shortstop in the nation by Prep Baseball Report. In his first season with the Fighting Illini, Harding led the team with eight walks and helped turn 12 double plays as the starting second baseman.
“He’s a guy that I have known for a really long time. He is from the same area that I’m from, so I’ve followed him and when I got the chance to bring him on with us, (it was) a no-brainer,” Rivets manager Josh Keim said. “I think he is a very talented young baseball player who is going to do really well for himself in the Big 10 moving forward. In my mind he is a sparkplug to a team.”
Hampe began his collegiate career at University of Illinois-Chicago, where he helped lead the Flames to a Horizon League title after hitting two home runs in the championship game — including the game-winning home run — en route to being named the championship MVP. He was also named National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Freshman All-American for his performance. Hampe spent his sophomore season at John A. Logan College, where he was hitting .413 with a .482 on-base percentage and .640 slugging percentage over 21 games before the season was cancelled.
“Ryan has played with or against a lot of the guys on our roster, so he is very familiar with his teammates,” Keim said. “I think Ryan has a chance to be the best catcher in the Northwoods League.. He handles a pitching staff like no other catcher that I’ve seen in this league. He can really hit. He’s a guy who’s a huge addition for us behind the plate.”
After hitting .286 with a double, two walks and two RBI in the NCAA tournament and tying for fourth on the Fighting Illini with four home runs as a freshman, Comia was ranked the No. 9 shortstop in the nation by D1Baseball and the No. 2 underclass shortstop in 2020. When Illinois season ended this spring, Comia was fourth in the Big Ten Conference in batting average (.426), on-base percentage (.526) and slugging percentage (.702), while also setting career-bests with a 10-game hitting streak and an 18-game on-base streak. Comia returns to the Rivets for his second season after hitting .200 with three doubles, one home run, 14 RBI and 18 walks over 30 games with Rockford in 2019.
“Branden was the best shortstop in the Northwoods League last summer,” Keim said. “He is coming off a really, really big spring where he hit the ball very well for Illinois…When he goes, the team goes — simply put. He’s a great teammate, so again it’s another great addition to bring him back.”
McDonald led Illinois with 34 RBI as a freshman in 2019, while also tying for sixth most hits by a freshman in team history with a season total of 63. He hit .250 with one RBI in the Fighting Illini’s NCAA tournament appearance last year, and he had seven hits with two doubles and was 2-for-2 in stolen base attempts this spring before the season was cancelled. McDonald also played in Rockford last season alongside Comia, as he hit .281 with four doubles and two triples over 26 games with the Rivets while tying for fourth on the team with 19 RBI.
“Last year he was a young player who made a huge impact for the University of Illinois. We were fortunate to have him with Branden in the Northwoods League last summer,” Keim said. “Cam has gained a lot of strength and has put on some weight since we last had him in Rockford…He struggled a little bit this last spring, so Cam has a chip on his shoulder right now, where he’s out to prove people wrong. I have the utmost confidence in Cam’s ability…and I expect him to come out with a little bit of edge, because he’s ready to prove people wrong. I truly believe that Cam can handle the bat like no one I’ve seen.”
The Rivets will open the 2020 season at home against the La Crosse Loggers on July 1 at 6:05 p.m.
The Rockford Rivets are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The Northwoods League is the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players. Having completed its’ 26th season, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 22 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, over 230 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including three-time All-Star and 2016 Roberto Clemente Award winner Curtis Granderson, three-time Cy Young Award winner and World Series Champion Max Scherzer (WAS), two-time World Series Champions Ben Zobrist (CHC) and Brandon Crawford (SFG) and World Series Champion Chris Sale (BOS). As well as 2019 Rookie of the Year and Home Run Derby Champion Pete Alonso (NYM) and MLB All-Star Jordan Zimmermann (DET). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League website. All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit www.rockfordrivets.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store or on Google Play and set the Rivets as your favorite team.