TERRE HAUTE —
If you were to ask me what the drawback of covering Indiana State baseball is? I’d be hard-pressed to name very much.
But if there’s one thing that jumps to mind — and it’s no one’s fault — it’s that basketball duties keep me from really getting to know the pulse of the baseball team until mid-to-late March.
Given that, I’ve been in catch-up mode this week as I’ve segued to the diamond, and these hot-starting Sycamores intrigued me.
Picked to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference and with plenty of question marks, especially on the mound where experience was in short supply, how exactly was this team floating near the top of the national computer rankings with a 17-6 record?
When you get to talk to the players, it’s easy to see why. This team will not accept, nor will it succumb to, excuses.
Every team in every sport at every level says they’re a no-excuses team … until the excuses start spewing forth. The gulf between saying it and living it is usually very wide indeed. I’m always very wary of teams that like to label themselves as a no-excuse team.
ISU’s baseball team hasn’t labeled itself at all — aside from an affinity for beards — but its actions speak loudly.
My usual no-excuses skepticism is melting away as I talk to and listen these Sycamores. I’m inclined to believe their no-excuse way of thinking is the genuine article. More importantly as far as ISU’s fortunes are concerned, I believe they believe it.
I saw and heard it Friday after ISU’s 5-2 loss to Illinois State and its 9-2 win over the Redbirds on Saturday. For example, I asked left fielder Tony Rosselli about ISU’s bounce-back effort in the second game of the series.
“It’s expected from us. We’re a good team, so we’re able to bounce back,” Rosselli said.
I also asked center fielder Landon Curry about ISU’s success with two outs and ISU’s batters not panicking deep in counts.
“Coach [Mitch] Hannahs is big on competing and battling in the box. With two strikes, you do what you have to do to get on-base,” Curry said.
Neither of those quotes are particularly revelatory at face value unless you know the manner in which they were delivered. Both Curry and Rosselli didn’t flinch, there was no lilt in their voice, there was no suspicion on my part that they were just repeating a line they heard the coaching staff tell them. They really do buy into these things.
That’s like discovering gold. Often times, players (and coaches) who beat the no-excuses drum are trying to convince themselves of they believe it as much as the person they’re talking to.
ISU’s mentality flows down from the top and first-year coach Hannahs deserves the credit for it. Hannahs lives by it too. When speaking of ISU’s bounce-back effort on Saturday, he said one thing that concerned him about Friday’s loss was his impression that the Sycamores were getting too caught up in questionable calls by the umpiring crew.
Blaming the umps is a shop-worn, ready-made excuse if there ever was one and it’s one that many teams will latch onto. Not these Sycamores. Not under Hannahs.
Hannahs is pleased with what he’s seen too. He knew as well as anyone that the Sycamores had question marks entering the season. He didn’t try to evade the reality of that. Instead, he honed the reality into a mentality for his team that has made them successful.
“It’s a very resilient group. It’s a group that, for the most part, hasn’t been doing a lot of complaining or moaning and groaning. They’re fundamentally sound and they’re more than willing when we ask them to bunt or give themselves up for the cause,” Hannahs said.
ISU is sitting in a far loftier perch than anyone envisioned. As of Saturday, ISU was 25th in the baseball RPI and 30th in the boydsworld.com Iterative Strength Rating, a computer ranking considered to be a top barometer in the sport. ISU also ranks ninth in Warren Nolan.com’s Power Index.
It’s heady territory, and yes, the season has a long way to go, but ISU has the right mentality to keep moving in the right direction.
And if it doesn’t? It’s doubtful you’ll hear too many excuses about it from the dugout.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.