If they make a baseball version of the movie “Hoosiers,” the inspiring locker room pregame speech just might end with Indiana coach Tracy Smith imploring his team, “Let’s win it for all the cold-weather schools that never got a chance to be here.”
Unlike fictional Hickory High, which won a basketball championship for all the “little schools,” IU is playing with the hopes of all Midwestern snow-belt schools that have fallen short of Omaha’s College World Series in recent decades.
“I hope their success helps people realize Indiana is an outstanding baseball state,” said Franklin College coach Lance Marshall, who is among Johnson County baseball coaches who believe the Hoosiers’ success in advancing to the NCAA championship will raise the visibility and credibility of Indiana as a baseball hotbed despite the sometimes chilly spring climate.
IU plays Louisville in the opening round of the World Series on Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN), with play continuing through June 26.
The prime-time matchup is more than a battle of neighboring programs on the rise (IU won two of three in the regular season). It is an affirmation that the area can produce great teams with quality athletes and coaching, something that has been suspect in the three decades since the Big Ten last sent a team to Omaha.
“While the traditional Southern states are typically identified as recruiting hotbeds, there are a plethora of high-quality players in Indiana,” Marshall said. “I certainly hope their success, coming on the heels of Purdue hosting a regional last year, will draw more attention to college baseball in our state and the Midwest.”
Already, the attention is paying dividends as the Hoosiers have been featured on ESPN, including Super Regional coverage of Indiana’s road upset of Florida State and several “top 10” plays from IU’s dramatic regional triumph.
“This legitimizes us and our conference,” IU coach Smith said following the win.
While Indiana has a solid pitching staff, the Hoosiers’ ability to slug past opponents (9.4 runs per game in the tourney) makes them especially fun to watch.
That style of play leaves a positive impression and will filter down to the prep ranks, as well.
“It is great for baseball in general as a sport, in particular college baseball, and as a trickle-down effect, high school baseball,” said Center Grove coach Dave Gandolph, whose son, David, played for the Hoosiers. “The publicity generated for baseball in the Midwest and Indiana is great for our sport.
“The interest in baseball in this area will climb at all levels.”
Indeed, this gives credence to the success of area high school programs that have taken spring trips south and fared well.
“Hopefully, this will get kids excited about baseball,” said Greenwood coach Andy Bass, who saw one of his players, Alex Krupa, selected in the 19th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft over the weekend.
Creating excitement about baseball is exactly what Edinburgh coach Cole Zook sees happening.
“I think the success that IU has had, along with the success of all the area schools, should raise interest levels for the game,” Zook said. “As a kid, I would watch the tournaments and championships on TV. I remember always dreaming of being that guy in the bottom of the ninth, runner in scoring position, in a tie ball game driving in that winning run.
“I think there are many kids in the area that share that dream, and after seeing the success of a local program, they will want to pursue that dream.”
There are two other important things to note from the Hoosiers’ success, the coaches note — a solid work ethic and a first-class facility.
“Having a first-class facility and playing field is a great help in making the players feel like playing at their best,” Gandolph said. “This holds true at any level of baseball, including high school. I went to a regular-season game and the first regional game at IU, and the atmosphere was exciting.”
IU opened 4,500-seat Bart Kaufman Field this season, a fan-friendly field adjacent to Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers sold out their three regional appearances there.
“There is a lot of excitement going on in that program,” Zook said. “With the new stadium that was built it gave the players, coaches and fans something to be proud of. Now their success on winning the Big Ten, then moving on to Omaha adds a lot more excitement to what is going on down in Bloomington.”
But IU’s success is due to more than a pretty stadium, even though the influence in attracting top recruits cannot be underestimated, the coaches say.
It also is a testament to diligence and dedication, something that will echo down to the prep level.
“Hard work pays off,” Bass said is the message that this IU team delivers. “It’s been 20-plus years (29 actually) since a Big Ten team reached Omaha. Nobody gave IU much of a chance against Florida State in the Super Regional. They played together and believed in themselves.”
That success will lead local baseball fans to gather Saturday night and watch IU kick off the CWS, which starts with double-elimination pool play before a best-of-three championship.
“Absolutely,” Marshall said when asked if he would tune in. “Watching the best of the best play is exciting and educational. Omaha is a special place and a special setting for these two weeks in June every year.
“I was fortunate enough to attend the CWS in 1993. They do it right in Omaha, a first-class event with great atmosphere and great baseball.”
And, if things break right for the Hoosiers and they continue their combination of hot hitting and timely pitching, who knows where that journey may end?
“I’m looking forward to hearing ‘Back Home in Omaha,’” Marshall said, of the song played to salute the new champion. “It’s college baseball’s version of basketball’s ‘One Shining Moment.’”
In Bloomington and throughout the baseball-underappreciated Midwest, that would be sweet music indeed.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns run Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.