Hot Hoosiers are placing no limits on themselves
Indiana coach Tracy Smith always tells his players to set goals in the realm of possibility.
What they came up with for this season would have been the stuff of fantasy in the recent past. Now, maybe not.
The Hoosiers (22-3, 6-0 Big Ten) already have achieved a couple of those goals, and their 15-game winning streak gives them reason to believe bigger ones are within reach.
"I don't talk crazy stuff or put much into stupid motivation,'' Smith said. "The things they put on their list, these are things they can control, and we've been checking those off one at a time. I'd love to see us get all of them, especially with Omaha being on there.''
Omaha? That's the College World Series - and a whopper of a goal given Indiana's lack of baseball tradition.
The Hoosiers haven't captured even a share of a Big Ten regular-season championship since 1949, and they've won only one of five games in two appearances in the NCAA tournament (1996 and 2009).
But Smith has upgraded the talent in his eight seasons at Indiana and looks to have his best team yet. The Hoosiers own the nation's longest current win streak and are in the top 10 in batting (.324), runs per game (7.8) and ERA (2.24). They have Big Ten leaders in Kyle Schwarber (.413, six home runs), Scott Donley (34 RBIs), Justin Cureton (14 stolen bases) and reliever Scott Effross (0.94 ERA).
Indiana grabbed attention early with a season-opening win over preseason top 10 Louisville, an opponent that outscored the Hoosiers 34-8 in two games last year. When the Hoosiers beat the Cardinals for a second time last week to win the season series, they put a check mark next to one of the goals listed on the big chart hanging in their locker room.
They achieved another when they took two of three on the road against Florida, a program that has played in the past three College World Series.
"We really thought we should have swept Florida,'' Schwarber said. "But we did win the series, and that put the Hoosiers on the map.''
A third goal was to crack the top 25 for the first time. That happened March 11. Indiana is Nos. 16, 17 and 18 in this week's major polls.
The next challenge is to win a Big Ten regular-season title for the first time in 64 years. The Hoosiers go into this weekend's home series against Illinois in first place, one game ahead of Nebraska, after sweeping Penn State and Iowa.
"They've got it rolling right now,'' Iowa coach Jack Dahm said. "It starts with the pitching staff. They've got guys who are strike throwers and who know how to compete. They've improved defensively, and their offense is as deep as I've seen in a long time.''
Schwarber, the Hoosiers' catcher, said the top three starters give opposing batters an array of looks.
Junior Joey DeNato (3-1, 3.41) is a left-hander who mixes off-speed pitches with an 85-mph fastball that, according to Schwarber, "looks like 90.'' Sophomore lefty Kyle Hart (4-0, 2.27) works off his change-up and rarely gets rattled. Sophomore Aaron Slegers (5-0, 1.08), injured most of the past two seasons, is a 6-foot-10 right-hander who comes down on batters with a fastball in the low 90s.
Effross (5-0), a freshman, and sophomore Ryan Halstead (1-0, 2.00, four saves) are the backbone of the bullpen.
Schwarber, who hit eight homers as a freshman last season, has continued to give the Hoosiers power out of the No. 2 hole. He has benefited from having batters who pack a punch behind him. Sam Travis, voted by Big Ten coaches as the batter they least wanted to face, is hitting .341 behind Schwarber with a team-leading 13 extra-base hits. Donley, a transfer from Virginia Tech who bats cleanup, is hitting .385 to share the team lead with Dustin DeMuth.
"He changed their lineup,'' Dahm said of Donley. "You can't pitch around Travis now.''
Even the No. 7 batter, Will Nolden, is batting .377.
It looked as if Smith had the Hoosiers built to last in 2009. That team went 16-7 in the Big Ten, Indiana's best record since 1939, and had three players among the first 50 taken in the draft.
But the Hoosiers were two games under .500 in league play over the next two seasons and started last year 18-23 before winning 14 of their final 19 to build momentum for this season.
"We hit a little bumpy road in the beginning of the season,'' Schwarber said. "Half the season went by and then we kicked it in. That's when we realized we had a chance to be a really, really good team.''
Indiana has had to overcome the obstacles other northern programs face. The Hoosiers played 19 straight on the road to open the season and have had the start times for their last nine games changed because of cold weather.
Stony Brook and Kent State last year offered proof that the College World Series is an attainable goal for northern schools. The Hoosiers took note and put "Omaha'' right near the top of their goals chart.
"It was fun to watch Kent State and Stony Brook, and we know we can be like them because we play some of the stiffest competition in the country,'' Slegers said. "We know if we reach the short-term goals we set for ourselves that it can lead to us reaching those long-term goals.''
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