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May 20, 2014

Keeping it going: ISU is likely NCAA-bound, but doesn’t want performance to slip

TERRE HAUTE — With a good showing in this week’s Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament, there’s at least two teams — perhaps more — that can make-or-break their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes.

Indiana State is not one of them, but it’s for the best of reasons.

The Sycamores enter the MVC Tournament — ISU opens its tournament at 7:30 p.m. tonight against Bradley — with their at-large resume in fine shape. ISU finished second in the MVC, but the Sycamores’ RPI is 18th, they have a 3-3 record against the RPI top 50 and a 10-9 record against the top 100. ISU also has virtually no bad losses with a 22-2 record against RPI teams ranked below 100.

Even if ISU went 0-2 in the double-elimination tournament, it is unlikely to do mortal damage to the Sycamores’ NCAA hopes.

But ISU doesn’t want it to come to that. Entering the tournament, ISU won seven of its last eight games and it wants to maintain that momentum so the NCAA chance that’s likely to come isn’t short in duration.

“You don’t want to give anyone any doubt. I think we’ve done a good job this year, but we don’t want to take anything for granted,” ISU right fielder Jacob Hayes said. “We were picked seventh in the league this year, so we kind of approached the season with a chip on our shoulder and it brought us success. We need to keep the same mindset.”

The trick, ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said, is to balance the mentality that earned ISU a 35-14 record, but temper it so that the Sycamores don’t force the issue.

“Motivation sure isn’t a problem, in fact, you have to work to dial it down a little bit so they don’t press and do too much. You try to go out there and play aggressive baseball,” said the first-year ISU head coach.

“We’ve pointed to this all year. This is what we’ve played for, this is what we’ve put the résumé together for. That’s the tough thing for young men to realize. You don’t have to do a whole lot different. You just have to come and play fundamental baseball. That’ll be our task as a coaching staff, to get them in that mentality,” Hannahs added.

The formula ISU used to put itself in an advantageous position boiled down to four things. The Sycamores had uncommon consistency, especially from its lineup. The Sycamores had just one three-game losing streak and only two two-game skids. Their starting staff wasn’t flashy, but did have a bulldog mentality that kept it in games. Finally, ISU’s bullpen was stellar.

The format is double elimination with two pools of four teams apiece. The survivors of the two pools face each other in a winner-take-all championship game Saturday.

ISU is the No. 2 seed in the tournament and is joined in its pool by No. 3 Dallas Baptist — in its first season as a MVC baseball-only member — No. 6 Missouri State and No. 7 Bradley. The other pool includes No. 1 Evansville, No. 4 Wichita State, No. 5 Illinois State and No. 8 Southern Illinois.

As the host, ISU plays in the 7:30 p.m. slot to start the tournament. After that, the Sycamores’ performance will dictate what time they play.

ISU will play Bradley just three days after ISU won the regular-season series in Peoria, Ill. The series was close — ISU won one game in 10 innings and Bradley won its game by one run. ISU’s players thought Bradley had one of the liveliest dugouts in the conference and is looking forward to the rematch.

“They were chirpy, but I think that gave us a little bit of added fire. I think we’ll come out Tuesday and they’ll get our best. They’ll have confidence beating us on Senior Day,” ISU catcher Mike Fitzgerald said.

The tournament, the first conference baseball tournament conducted at ISU since 1982, is a point of pride for the university and the athletic department. Several upgrades were made to the facilities to make it suitable for the tournament, including a remodeled press box, two field boxes and improved facilities inside the dugouts.

According to the bid award letter listed on ISU’s official web site, ISU authorized $334,073 to CDI Inc. on Jan. 3 to complete the project.

The Sycamores hope they’re the last team standing after the conclusion of Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship game.

“I think it’s a last trial run for the NCAA regional. Luckily we set ourselves up so that we don’t have to win the tournament, but we definitely want to win it. We’re not going to think ahead. We’re going to try to win it on our home field,” ISU second baseman Derek Hannahs said.

Today’s games

At Bob Warn Field

Game 1 — No. 4 Wichita State (29-26, 13-8) vs. No. 5 Illinois State (30-21, 10-11), 9 a.m.

Game 2 — No. 1 Evansville (34-19, 15-6) vs. No. 8 Southern Illinois (25-29, 4-17), 12:30 p.m.

Game 3 — No. 3 Dallas Baptist (36-18, 14-7) vs. No. 6 Missouri State (23-29, 9-12), 4 p.m.

Game 4 — No. 2 Indiana State (35-14, 14-7) vs. No. 7 Bradley (23-25, 5-16), 7:30 p.m.

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