If it meant catching on quickly at Northern Illinois University — and catching, period — Carl Russell was willing to receive, so to speak.
So, yes, toss the recent Grayslake North graduate a catcher’s mitt.
The sure-handed infielder will catch it, surely.
All set on attending Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., and playing shortstop for the Division III program, Russell got a pleasant surprise this summer while playing travel ball for coach Clay Kovac’s Kenosha Indians. The hard-hitting, speedy Russell caught the attention of Northern Illinois.
The Huskies offered him a partial scholarship, and he accepted.
“It was crazy,” Russell said. “It all happened so fast.”
It happened so freaky fast that Russell even assured NIU that he’s willing to catch fastballs.
Grayslake North’s starting shortstop the last two seasons and a three-year starting infielder for the varsity, Russell was asked by NIU’s coaches if he felt he would be comfortable catching and willing to learn the position enough to serve, if needed, as a backup backstop.
“That was shock for me,” Russell said with a laugh.
“I used to catch when I was younger. Up until before high school, I caught — not every day because I was playing short — but when we needed it, because I know how to catch. It’s going to be new, but I’m excited to do it.”
Grayslake North’s young baseball program boasts Russell as its record holder for career stolen bases (43) and RBI (77). His senior season saw him hit .447 with more than half of his 36 hits going for extra bases. He set single-season school marks for stolen bases (13) and RBI (37).
By signing with Northern, he becomes the first Grayslake North baseball player to go Division I.
“It’s kind of weird to think about it, but it’s an honor,” said Russell, a 5-foot-9, 160-pounder who helped the Knights post back-to-back winning seasons and this past spring capture their first Fox Valley Conference Fox Division championship.
Russell and his Kenosha Indians teammates were playing in a tournament at Northwestern this summer when the former Knight shined. He was impressive enough that Northwestern’s coach called NIU to tell the Huskies about Russell. With one player being selected in the major league amateur draft and a catcher having suffered a major injury, NIU was suddenly looking for a ballplayer.
Northern assistant coaches Tom Carcione and Todd Coryell checked out Russell in action, and then Russell met up with them and head coach Ed Mathey on a visit to NIU’s DeKalb campus.
“I really liked the school and everything, so that’s when I made my decision,” Russell said. “I’m going to be a utility guy. I’m going to be catching, and playing second and short.”
At NIU, Russell will catch up with another former star shortstop for Grayslake North. Jordyn Bowen, who graduated with Russell and during the school signed a letter of intent to play softball for the Huskies, will also be a freshman. She and Russell will live in the same dorm.
They happen to be good friends who pack a bat and glove.
“It’s funny. We got a class together, too,” Russell. “It’ll be cool.”
It already is.
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