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May 31, 2014

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Hannahs strikes pitch perfect no-excuse, no-apology tone

BLOOMINGTON — When you're a fan of a college team, when you're a fan of anything, you don't tend to look at the finer points of success or failures. You just relish the high points and wallow in the low points without giving the reasons for either very much thought.

Indiana State fans are that way. Fans of any college team are that way. Even though everyone knows in their head that each program is different, it's easy to group all of the joy and despair together into one emotion-fueled lump.

So it is and so it will be in the wake of ISU baseball's 5-2 loss to Youngstown State Saturday that ended the Sycamores' campaign with an 0-2 NCAA regional performance. ISU ended with a season-long five-game losing streak and had its second two-and-barbecue NCAA regional exit in three seasons.

I know what the reaction will be from some ISU fans because I've already had it expressed to me. Yet another instance where an ISU program raises expectations only to let everyone down with a late-season failure.

Its been a running theme in the 2010s. Whether it be football, men's basketball, women's basketball, and previously, baseball, it's happened to them all.  It's been a frustrating recurring theme. (Though when some ISU fans express to me they'd rather not make the postseason rather than lose in it? They've lost the plot.)

It's not entirely fair, of course, to lump all of these teams together. Each of them had their own expectations and reasons for their fates. Some of the underwhelming finishes were more understandable than others.

For ISU baseball this season? The five-game losing streak to end the season had an element of the clock striking midnight for Cinderella. ISU were battlers and grinders, not a team that was going to overwhelm anyone with raw talent. That's why they were picked seventh in the MIssouri Valley Conference to begin with.

The Sycamores won 11 one-run games. The Sycamores had a starting pitch staff cobbled together very late in the game. And yet, ISU earned a late-season RPI of 15, won 35 games, and made it to a NCAA regional no one envisioned in their wildest February dreams.

There will be some fans who read the above two paragraphs and think it's Pollyanna apologism. Failure is failure and that's the bottom line. That's fine. To feel thay way is no more or less valid an opinion than my own.

That's why I think ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said it best. He struck the right tone between showing appreciation for players who over-performed for most of the season and acknowledging the disappointing payoff at the regional.

"Bottom line is we didn't play well enough to win. We accept that, but it doesn't diminish the year these young men have had," Hannahs said.

Hannahs thought it was important to acknowledge that. Finishes define seasons, Hannahs knows it, it's human nature. But it isn't the whole story. At the same time, to not learn a lesson from the finish is to set yourself up for more of the same.

"You step back for the players' sake and give them some gratification to reflect on the season. From a coaches' standpoint, it's 'what have you done for me lately?' For the players, I think they busted their tail. For the coaches? We have to do better in the postseason," Hannahs said.

Hannahs' no excuses ethos ran through the Sycamores all season and did them a lot of good. To that end, Hannahs elaborated on what he needs to do better as a coach.

"I think there's an expectation level in any program. I think some teams expect to be in these regionals and expect to win these regionals. Some teams are just happy to be in these regionals. I think if we want to elevate our program, a regional has to be an afterthought," Hannahs said.

"You have to be in the top tier every year and you have to have the talent level to walk in [to a regional] and have a legitimate chance. That's why I'm not going to bang on our guys. We overachieved all year," Hannahs said.

Better than any coach who's been faced with it at Indiana State, Hannahs handled the disappointment of an underwhelming finish with grace, intelligence and the right mix of perspective. No excuses, but no apologies for the success the Sycamores enjoyed for the majority of the campaign.

While the bitter taste will no doubt linger for ISU fans, the baseball program is in great hands if Hannahs applies what he says once he gets a full off-season or two to build his team.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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