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Bloomington no longer just hotbed of basketball

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Just one week ago — more precisely, at the exact time a ground ball glanced off the glove of second-baseman Chad Clark and into center field, allowing two more runs — Indiana University’s promising baseball season appeared to be all but over.

Down 4-1 in the ninth inning to Valparaiso in their opening game of the NCAA Regional, the Hoosiers were on the ropes.

When the Crusaders’ closer got the first Indiana out, thoughts of what have might have been for IU were entering the minds of even the most loyal fans.

After all, teams that lose a first game just don’t come back in the double-elimination tournament. In fact, none of the 32 opening-game losers came back to win the regional this year. Lose the first one, and you are done.

But this is a season when expectations were made to be broken down in Bloomington. The year already brought the first Big Ten baseball title since 1949, a first Big Ten Tournament title and a first host of a regional.

Now, after what happened in that fateful ninth inning last Friday and beyond, it brings the Hoosiers’ first trip to the Super Regional. IU travels to Florida State for a three-game set to decide who goes to the College World Series (noon Saturday, ESPNU; 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU; and 1 p.m. Monday, ESPN2).

If you were in Bloomington last weekend, you know never to count out these Hoosiers. You also know that baseball is becoming something special on the IU campus, a sure catalyst for the game in central Indiana.

With a beautiful new home at Bart Kaufman Field featuring a funky field turf diamond — no dirt at all — and a promising roster (six players are on Baseball America’s draft projections), Indiana baseball has arrived.

Of course, that statement can be made with emphasis if the Hoosiers (46-14) can take out the No. 7-seed Seminoles and advance to Omaha.

Florida State won its 13th NCAA Regional in the past 15 years (since the Super Regional format was instituted). The Seminoles outscored foes 32-4 in three games, tallying double-digit runs in each contest and not allowing a run until the regional championship against Troy on Sunday. FSU has won 19 consecutive NCAA Regional contests.

There is no doubt that IU is the underdog, especially on the road. But coach Tracy Smith’s team has plenty of hitting at the top of the order led by Regional MVP Sam Travis and a pitching corps that is deep.

Can the Hoosiers knock out a baseball powerhouse this weekend?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how remarkable that may be. College baseball is a sport inextricably linked to climate. It is the flip-side of ice hockey. It is a matter of meteorological math — the warmer the temperatures, the better the programs.

Indeed, IU is the only team north of the Ohio River to make it to the 16-team Super Regional. No other Big Ten Team. No Big East team. No other anybody from a cold-weather state.

But that doesn’t mean that IU baseball is a secret around these parts, especially with a first-ever Regional in town.

“Who would have ever thought that you had to be in line 45 minutes before the gates open to get a seat in the main stands,” said Greenwood resident Ed Scheidler, who saw the Hoosiers defeat No. 2 seed Austin Peay, 6-1, for the regional crown and already has talked to other fans about going back next season to see the Hoosiers and their new stadium. “It’s just an unbelievable place.”

IU also beat the Governors on Saturday, 15-6, in the semifinals. Perennial SEC power Florida did not win a game.

The capacity crowd on Sunday night set an attendance record, as did the previous two nights.

At the center of Hoosiers’ success is eigth-year coach Tracy Smith, a Kentland, Ind., native, who has brought a new spirit and energy to the program.

“He has built a championship program at IU in a relatively short time, which is evident by winning the Big Ten Championship, Big Ten Tournament Championship and the first-ever NCAA Regional Championship,” said longtime baseball fan and Greenwood resident Bob Potter, who attended all three regional contests. “With the upgrade to the facilities, IU will now be on a level playing field with Ohio State and Michigan when it comes to recruiting.”

That is the idea. Be the best in the Big Ten. After all, as Smith says, Bloomington has the best climate in the conference, so it should also have the best team.

With success, comes better competition.

IU will need to squeeze every bit of luck and talent to advance against Florida State.

That brings us back to Clark, the 5-foot-7 second-basemen, whose error put the Hoosiers in a big hole Friday. Smith said he was already thinking about what to say to his team after a loss.

In the strange way that baseball creates ironies, though, IU strung together some ninth-inning magic. Wouldn’t you know it? Clark came to the plate with a man on base and the gap cut to 4-3.

His response? A no-doubter on the first pitch over the left field wall for his first homer of the season and a 5-4 walk-off win for IU.

Improbable? Of course.

But it also is symbolic of this exceptional year on the diamond at Bloomington.

You just can’t count out these Hoosiers. Hello, Tallahassee.

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