No one wanted to say it out loud at the time, but the Indiana State baseball team had an up-and-down month of May.
On one hand, the Sycamores took two-out-of-three in what turned out to be a crucial series against Wichita State at the start of the month, swept Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill., in the middle, and clinched the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship in their first try against Missouri State near the end.
On the other hand, ISU lost the remaining games against the Bears in the three-game home series, went 0-for-the MVC Tournament in Springfield, Mo., and capped the month with a harrowing five-day stay on the NCAA Tournament at-large bubble.
In the end, it all worked for ISU as the Sycamores were selected Monday to play in an NCAA Tournament Regional at the University of Oregon. ISU plays Cal State-Fullerton at 5 p.m. Friday at Oregon’s PK Park.
But for the jubilation experienced Monday and the sense of validation it gave the Sycamores for their 41-17 season, there was also the vibe of unrealized redemption.
Yes, the NCAA selection committee had deemed the Sycamores worthy of inclusion in the tournament, but the Sycamores themselves want to show that their late-season inconsistency was an outlier, not a matter of a team reverting to its true level.
“We didn’t finish the regular season very strongly, but the committee looked at our body of work. We got a second chance and we’ll be able to take full advantage of that. We can prove to the country what kind of team we are,” ISU senior left fielder Kyle Burnam said.
Once the Sycamores were selected to play in the field, ISU coach Rick Heller was blunt about the fact that the Sycamores didn’t play the way they were capable of playing in the last month of the year.
“For third-quarters of the season, we executed right, that’s the team we were. Once we won the championship, we got away from that a little,” Heller said. “We were 7-6 in May and had some things happen that didn’t happen earlier in the year. This gives us a second chance to be that team we were and things will go back to norm.”
In a sense, ISU’s long wait on the NCAA Tournament at-large bubble should serve as a cautionary tale for the Sycamores. Let your guard down and everything positive the team did through the course of the season can go down the drain.
With Fullerton (35-19) and Oregon (42-17) providing stiff competition in ISU’s regional, Heller knows the margin for error is non-existent.
“The way I look at it is that we’re a team that plays well when we’re doing everything right. It’s not like we have three or four first-round draft picks and it depends on whether they hit a home run that day to determine our fate,” Heller said.
“If we play our game and play it well, we can beat anybody, but it has to be that. Any deviation from that will make us a good team that’s going to get beat if we don’t play our style of baseball,” Heller added.
That mantra goes for any of ISU’s opponents this weekend.
“It really doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve beaten teams just as good and we’ve lost to teams far worse. It all stems from how we control ourselves,” Heller said.
ISU’s players seemed to take to heart the close call they had in making the field. They hope the sense of renewal carries over to results.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to get to Omaha [site of the College World Series]. Now we can do that. Who knows how far we can go? It’s all up to us now. We want to make people know our name,” ISU catcher Jeremy Lucas said.
• Regular rotation to be used — Heller indicated that he will use ISU’s regular starting rotation in the regional. No. 1 starter Dakota Bacus is scheduled to start Friday against Fullerton.
Heller changed the rotation at the MVC Tournament as he elected to go with No. 2 starter Sean Manaea in game one of the tournament and Bacus in the second game.
The decision didn’t really have a discernible effect on the two games. Creighton’s Ty Blach one-hit the Sycamores in game one and Bacus struggled in the second game.
ISU will practice at PK Park at 11 a.m. (PDT) Thursday. The Sycamores will get about 24 hours of rest before they face Fullerton.
• Hitchin’ a ride — ISU chartered a flight to Eugene, Ore., on Wednesday. Before it made the long trek out west, it detoured to Nashville, Tenn., to pick up Austin Peay (38-22), the fourth-seeded team in the Oregon Regional.
It seemed apropos that another connection had been made to one of the regional participants as ISU, or members of its coaching staff, have links to each of the other three teams in some fashion.
“It’s funny how things work. [Oregon coach] George Horton was Ronnie Prettyman’s coach at Fullerton [Prettyman is a volunteer assistant coach for ISU] and a friend of mine from the All-American committee,” Heller said. “[Former ISU men’s basketball coach] Kevin McKenna and Megan [McKenna, former member of the ISU athletic department] are out there from the old basketball staff.
“Austin Peay is there. [APSU coach] Gary McClure and I grew up playing each other in two dinky towns 15 miles apart in Iowa and here we are going to Oregon to play in a regional against each other,” Heller added.