BLOOMINGTON – It’s a rare scene for the middle of June at a Big Ten baseball stadium. In Bloomington on a slightly warm Tuesday, it was one never witnessed before.
After all the stadium that sits in front of Michael Basil was not even there just a year earlier-at least in the form which he saw it from the first base dugout as media members came in and out for interviews.
“This is unbelievable,” said the Indiana senior infielder as he looked onto Bart Kaufman Field, the new ballpark for the Hoosiers baseball team opened just a few months earlier. “Going from Sembower (IU’s old park) to this field is like going from a high school field to a cathedral.”
“It’s pretty incredible.”
So is the reason he is sitting in the dugout, at least if you look at the trends over the past three decades with baseball teams in the Midwest. Five consecutive victories in the NCAA Tournament have earned Indiana a place among the top eight teams in college baseball and a trip to the Division I World Series in Omaha, NE.
Qualifying for the championship is a first for the Hoosiers and ends a 29-year Big Ten drought for conference teams in the College World Series. Barry Larkin’s Michigan team was the last to get their in 1984-and the significance of ending the drought hasn’t been lost.
“I take a lot of satisfaction in cracking that egg, so to speak,” said manager Tracy Smith-who took over the program eight years ago. “I feel like we’re not just representing our school, we’re representing the cold weather programs and showing people that you can play baseball in the north and you can get to the College World Series.
“Now let’s do some damage in the College World Series.”
But how did this team manage to do so just to get there? We’ll its been a process of building a solid program over the past decade under Smith. The first signs of a program on the rise came in 2009, when the Hoosiers won the Big Ten Tournament in Columbus and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
A number of players from that team were drafted so a rebuild was necessary for Smith and his coaching staff. Things started coming together in 2012 as the Hoosiers were near the top of the Big Ten in the regular season and were competitive in the subsequent conference tournament.
“The people we bring in, the talent we bring in,” said senior outfielder Justin Cureton of the team’s recruiting the past few seasons. “The coaches have been good to mold us and bring us together and get everyone on the same page and when that happens with a bunch of talented guys, it’s scary.”
Successful would be the better word. Indiana stayed in the national rankings for the majority of the season as they moved into Kaufman Field and even enjoyed an 18-game winning streak in the middle of the season. Indiana wrapped up conference play at 15-6 and once again won the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis.
“Definitely the right mindset and being together as a team,” said second baseman Chad Clark of what helped the team take a bigger step in 2013. “I know we’re a really close team and as long as everyone is on the same page and everybody’s doing the same thing, everybody knows their role on the field and off the field and just representing Indiana baseball, that’s one of the biggest things.”
So is their homefield. It came in handy during the regular season when they were 16-3 and was critical in starting off their run in the NCAA Tournament. With a new capacity of 2,500 fans the park was eligible to host a baseball regional, something that wasn’t possible at their old park.
Hosting tournament games for the first time in school history the Hoosiers took advantage as they won three-straight games-winning the last two by a combined score of 21-7-to advance to their first Super Regional. Momentum from home carried over to Tallahassee as Indiana swept seventh-ranked Florida State to clinch the elusive crown.
“If this wasn’t here this year, it could have been a whole different story,” said catcher Kyle Schwarber of Kaufman Field. “We may not have been able to host a regional at our place. We may have had to go to Gary and play in the minor league park. I feel like having this, this year, and as our process was building, this was something that we needed to have if we were going to be a Top 25 team.
“It’s been awesome having our fans behind us every game and I feel like that’s gotten us a little more respect.”
More was gained after a weekend at Florida State and now the chance to get some more begins on Saturday when Indiana faces Louisville at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha at 8 P.M in their College World Series opener. Smith has the challenge of getting his players to enjoy the moment ahead while taking advantage of it on the field to bring home the team’s first national championship.
“We’re gonna enjoy every minute of it, but we’re also going to realize that we’re not finished yet and that this is business trip,” said Smith. “It’s not just to go out there and have a great time and then go 0-2 and come home. That’s not what we’re thinking. It’s been overwhelming, it’s been exciting, it’s been different but we are going to enjoy it.”
Just like the view from the first base dugout on the most unusual of June afternoons in Bloomington.