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Magical, mystical Hoosiers head to World Series

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One of the wonders of sport is that we are always just around the corner from something that has never happened.

On rare occasions, it is not just unusual but improbable. It is a happening bordering on mystical.

That was the case with Butler’s runs to NCAA basketball championship games a few seasons back.

And now, pixie dust is lining Indiana University’s path to the College World Series in Omaha.

“It’s magical,” said left fielder Casey Smith, who drove in a key run in Indiana’s 11-6 Super Regional clincher at Florida State on Sunday. “I would say I don’t want to sit back and look at it until everything is done. I think the best part is to just keep going and taking another step.”

The Hoosiers (48-14) are not supposed to be here. Oh, don’t take that wrong. It’s not that the boys from Bloomington are not a good team. They certainly are, with three players taken in last week’s MLB draft.

No, it is simply a matter of living in the wrong place.

Teams from the Midwest, and the Big Ten in particular, can’t find their way to Omaha.

Indeed, it has been since 1984, when Michigan represented the conference in the CWS and 47 years since Ohio State became the last national title winner.

The Hoosiers have not been in the College World Series since, well, ever. This is their first appearance in the championship round in 118 years on the diamond.

Get out the record book along with a scorecard. This is one of those special moments as IU starts its Omaha title quest this weekend against Louisville.

There are so many storylines. Which one do you pick?

Destiny? Magic? Family? They’re all here.

And it takes each to describe Indiana’s unlikely and inspired run.

“This is what you dream about as a little kid,” said first-baseman Sam Travis, who broke open Sunday’s game with a two-run homer. “You watch the College World Series on the TV, and you just dream of it and now it just feels like you are living in the dream.”

It is a dream for the IU program and for the whole Big Ten as well, which has taken its share of heat over the 29-year College World Series drought.

“It is hard for me to believe it has been that long,” said coach Tracy Smith, who turned around Miami of Ohio’s program before coming to IU eight years ago. “People don’t understand what northern schools have to go through to get here.”

Indeed, this run is about more than just Indiana in the same way that Butler’s basketball success is about more than just one small school.

College baseball in the Midwest has slipped into what many view as a junior varsity level, the victim of cold and rainy weather. Who can blame a top recruit for choosing to play in the SEC, Pac-10 or Big 12?

“I’m happy for our team and for our conference,” said Smith, who has lured recruits to Bloomington with a new stadium, relatively mild climate and fundamental coaching. “This legitimizes what we do.”

It not just legitimizes it; it sends off fireworks in the college baseball world.

IU went into Tallahassee, with one of the most rabid fan bases in college baseball and beat up the sports’ seventh-ranked Florida State on its home field. The Hoosiers followed a 10-9 opening win with the 11-6 clincher to take the best-of-three Super Regional. The Seminoles finished third in last year’s College World Series.

“I’m happy it happened here at Florida State because it makes a statement that this is not a fluke,” Coach Smith said.

No, not a fluke for the Hoosiers, who now have won the Big Ten regular-season title, Big Ten tournament, NCAA Regional and NCAA Super Regional. Each step creates a bit more history.

“I tweeted out the other day that every pitch that we make, every hit and every out is really making history for our baseball program because this is certainly uncharted territory for us,” said Smith, who, like basketball counterpart Tom Crean, is a prolific tweeter (follow him at @HoosierBaseball).

As special as this run has become, it takes on an even greater significance for the coach, whose son, Casey, plays left field.

“It’s a feeling that puts a knot in your stomach because you want it so bad for your kid,” the elder Smith said, while joking that his son is the only player on the team who cannot call home to complain about the coach. “For us to be able to share this together, I couldn’t have written it any better.”

No, it as a story cannot be any better, but there is an ending to be written in Omaha. These Hoosiers are just trying to take it all in, even if that is overwhelming at times.

“It was awesome,” said Will Coursen-Carr, a freshman left-hander from Fort Wayne, who came in to clinch Sunday’s game, just as he did in the Big Ten Tournament and Regional. “I really don’t remember what happened.”

That juxtaposition brought a chuckle in the post-game news conference and revealed a truth behind this moment. IU’s run is awesome, so awesome that it is difficult to put it in context just yet.

Now, sights are set on Louisville, a team whose recent success the Hoosiers have tried to emulate. The Cardinals are on an impressive run of their own, upsetting No. 2 seed Vanderbilt in two games to advance.

With the NCAA men’s basketball title, women’s runner-up and a Sugar Bowl victory already this year, Louisville is primed for more success.

IU and Louisville have played three times this season, with the Hoosiers taking two of those. In the double-elimination format, a Game 1 victory is essential to success.

For now, Smith and Hoosiers are staying loose and enjoying the ride.

“When you get to this point in the season, as a coach you step back and trust your team,” the coach said. “This is a players’ team. That is what is most impressive to me. These guys really believe. That gives me confidence.”

Next stop, Omaha.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays.

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