Imagine warm-weather schools Florida State and Arizona becoming dominant at ice hockey. Picture Idaho as the latest surfing spot. Think of genteel Vermont as a rodeo destination.
They just don’t fit.
The idea of cold-weather Bloomington producing one of nation’s premier college baseball programs may not be quite that absurd, but it is close.
Sure, you can play baseball in the Big Ten. You just can’t be very good at it on the national stage. Never have been, and most thought never will.
That is what makes IU’s national seed truly impressive going into today’s opening game of the NCAA Regional at Bloomington.
It just doesn’t happen. Indeed, it has never happened in the conference. When you are talking about the historic Big Ten, never is a very long time.
But here are the Hoosiers, defying Mother Nature and NCAA baseball tradition to do the unthinkable.
After last year’s inspired uphill run to the College World Series, IU returns to postseason play as one of the top eight seeded teams in the nation.
The Big Ten champs open play against Horizon Conference tourney winner Youngstown State(16-36) in the nightcap (7 p.m. ESPN3) of the four-team double elimination round. Stanford (30-23) and Indiana State (35-16) square off at 2 p.m.
The Hoosiers (42-13) are seeded fourth in the nation, the only time a conference school has been in the top eight. That designation assures IU that it would host a Super Regional if it advances out of the Regional.
“We’re excited for our team,” said senior catcher Kyle Schwarber, whose home run helped IU top Nebraska, 8-4, for the Big Ten title. “It’s the first time we’ve ever gotten a national seed. We’re ready for the challenge it brings.”
Indiana’s skipper, Big Ten Coach of the Year Tracy Smith, cautions against overconfidence but thinks his team has gotten the message after a rocky regular season start that opened with a 9-8 record.
“Just play,” Smith said. “It’s something we talk about every day. Don’t be afraid of the result. Just play and walk off the field knowing you’ve given it everything.”
After settling down and learning to not press against the expectations from last season’s breakout year, IU went 33-5.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams with a Regional round, the hosts advance about 70 percent of the time.
The Sycamores are Indiana’s biggest threat. The two teams split a pair of games this season, so Indiana State will not be awed by the opponent or the atmosphere at Bart Kaufman Field if the two meet in a likely Saturday matchup.
Last year, the Hoosiers won their Regional and then swept Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida to advance to Omaha.
The national top eight seeds are Oregon State (42-12), Florida (40-21), Virginia (44-13), Indiana, Florida State (43-15), Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7), TCU (42-15) and LSU (44-14-1).
IU has put up the season numbers to stack up well in the long tournament. The Hoosiers’ .294 team batting average and .973 fielding percentage both rank in the top 50 nationally.
Seniors Schwarber (.340), first baseman Sam Travis (.342) and third baseman Dustin DeMuth (.381) lead a team with a record eight players named all-conference.
It is pitching, though, that sets this team apart and might be the difference if it gets to Omaha. Senior Joey DeNato (12-1, 1.77 ERA) leads a staff that has bounced back from season-ending injuries to its closer and No. 2 starter to become dominant.
How dominant? IU’s staff ERA of 2.17 is third-lowest in all of Division I baseball.
The prelude is over; the regular season is history.
There is no doubt that this Hoosier team expects to be here. The goal has been the same since their elimination by Oregon State at the College World Series last June 19.
“It’s Omaha. It is winning that national championship,” Schwarber said in a February interview. “We know now what it takes to get there. And we know that feeling in your gut from losing.”
This is no one-hit wonder in Bloomington. The Hoosiers are back in the postseason again. And this time they want more.