PEORIA — Mitch Janssen loved to play baseball and loved to fly.

But on Wednesday, his beloved Bradley University baseball team had to battle shock, grief, and say an unwanted goodbye in the aftermath of tragedy.

Janssen, 22, was a decorated Bradley player who graduated after the 2019 season and moved on to pursue his dream -- flying airplanes.

Janssen and two passengers died Tuesday when the single-engine Cessna 172 he piloted crashed in the southbound lanes of Interstate 55 near I-155 and Illinois Routes 10 and 121, according to the Illinois State Police. The passengers were Matthew R. Hanson, 33, of Pulaski, Wis., and Kevin G. Chapman, 30, of Urbana.

"I don't know how I'm going to get through this ... the last two days have been really, really tough," said BU head coach Elvis Dominguez, voice wavering as he fought tears during an emotional address Wednesday. "This is a very sad day for Bradley baseball. It's life, and we're trying to get through it. I have a group of 32 young men downstairs (in the clubhouse) who are struggling with this.

"Our players are not doing well. That's because of the kind of person Mitch was."

On Wednesday, Dominquez, his players and staff, and various BU officials and members of the host Peoria Chiefs gathered at Dozer Park to talk about how much the former Braves star pitcher meant to the team.

"We lost a good one. Not a good one, a great one," Dominguez said. "In all my 33 years of coaching, I can tell you he was at the top. One of the most selfless individuals I've ever had the honor of coaching.

"It was always about the players. Always about the people. Never about Mitch. A great person, a great teammate and a great role model. He was the youngest certified pilot in the world, doing something he was passionate about. It's what he wanted to do the rest of his life. He had a chance to play pro ball (but) turned to flying.

"It's just sad that stuff like this happens. You can't learn this in a book. You can't learn it in a class. ... It's a tough thing, to let go. We never shake hands, we hug -- that's my rule. And (yesterday) we lost one of our own. If you ask my wife how many children we have, she'll tell you 35 of them. It's why we do this."

Janssen was a Princeville native and a three-sport athlete for Princeville High School in baseball, basketball and football. He was a three-time McDonald's All-Star and was an Illinois Coaches Association all-state and first-team all-area selection in baseball his senior year.

Dominguez saw the player, and saw the man he was destined to be.

"His determination struck me," Dominguez said. "Everything I read about him, thought I knew about him came true to life. He was everything a coach would want in an athlete, everything a parent would want in a son.

"He was somebody I wanted to represent our program, so I did everything I could to get him."

At BU, Janssen emerged as the ace of the pitching staff during his junior season. Then, as a senior in 2019, he went 4-2 with a 2.06 ERA.

He piled up honors, from MVC Pitcher of the Week in 2018, to all-MVC in 2019, the winner of the university's Mike Dunne Award (2019) and four straight years on the MVC honor roll.

He spent several weeks in 2019 with the lowest ERA among all pitchers in NCAA Div.-I baseball. And his 2.05 ERA ended up being the third-lowest at BU in its metal-bat era.

Off the field, Janssen worked as a commercial charter jet pilot during his final two years at Bradley.

He earned his pilot's license at age 17, and at age 20, became the youngest pilot in the world rated to fly the Brazilian-made Embraer Phenom 100 twin-engine jet.

"I told my bosses ... being on scholarship, Bradley comes first and flying comes second. It’s even in my contract," Janssen told Bradley's alumni magazine in a 2018 story. "Every day is a full day. There are no days when I sit around and do nothing."

He purchased his own plane in 2018, and was flying 30 hours a week out of Bloomington and Peoria.

But he was the same guy he always was when he walked through Bradley's clubhouse doors.

"He asked for permission to do something nice for the team," Dominguez said, recalling one of his favorite stories about Janssen. "He took them all to a concert and then to dinner. He just did it all on his own time."

Dave Eminian covers the Rivermen and Chiefs for the Journal Star, and writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.