TERRE HAUTE —
When you cover a team, no matter the sport, you hear a lot about the “feel” around a team. Morale, spirit, whatever you want to call it, it’s something that universal to all sports.
There’s some who think feel is a load of hogwash. Feel means nothing. Production is more important than “feel.” No sport probably tries to break down the phenomenon of feel more than baseball. Sabermetricians analyze the game to the nth degree to exorcise the feel right out of the game.
It takes a team like Indiana State to restore one’s faith in feel. In fact, the Sycamores provide a bit of an epiphany in that department.
You know their feel is real because they buy into it — completely and without reservation. Chicken-or-egg, ying-and-yang, their faith in the feeling they have makes it real.
And right now, in the wake of a five-game winning streak, nine wins in 10, and a surge into the top 20 of the national RPI ratings (17th at this writing), the 33-13 Sycamores feel really good.
They have reason to. This is not a team laden with stars. There is no stopper or clean-up hitter upon which they rely. This is a team that has to depend on each other to be successful. In that regard, they’ve done as well as any team in the country.
“Everybody’s coming together and we’ve enjoyed ourselves all since fall. We’re just trying to continue to play well and see how long we can keep it going,” ISU relief pitcher Ryan Keaffaber said.
The feel around the ISU team is one that stems from the reward you get when you take a leap of faith. Not many of the Sycamores knew what to expect when Mitch Hannahs took over late in the summer of 2013 after Rick Heller took the job at Iowa. The Sycamores had to invest their mental capital into a bank vault worth of buy-in.
What the Sycamores found is that the buy-in has been simple. If you make no excuses and you play as hard as you can, good things will happen.
“It all really starts with Coach Hannahs, the coaches and their philosophy. We’ve been down a few times this year, and we’ve got our butts kicked a few times, but they just let us play,” ISU catcher Mike Fitzgerald said.
“They tell us to give maximum effort at all times. If we’re not good enough, then we’re not good enough, but the fact they gave us that much freedom means we don’t press and we all stick together as one team. Everybody’s happy, and everyone loves Coach Hannahs’ philosophy. It’s awesome,” Fitzgerald added.
The proof has been there all season. ISU’s consistency has been amazing as its never really had a down period. The Sycamores won 12 in a row in March and have had only three times all season where they have lost consecutive games. One of the few bumps in the road was a 2-4 start in the Missouri Valley Conference — one that might consign ISU to the runner-up spot in the MVC — but the Sycamores fought through that, too.
“Starting out conference 2-4? We knew we were a good team and now we’re 12-6. We’ve swept some really good teams, and we’ve had some good series against some really good teams,” Fitzgerald said. “The fact that we had our backs against the wall in the last two games shows that we can get through any adversity and how special this team really is.”
Special doesn’t begin to describe it. Keep in mind, ISU was picked to finish seventh in the MVC this season and had major pitching worries entering the campaign. In terms of surprises, it’s the most surprising team ISU has had in any sport in the decade I’ve been around.
Sunday was ISU’s last scheduled home game, but ISU hosts the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament this season, so there’s another chance for area fans to get into the feel that this easy-to-root-for team exudes. Area fans ought to be four-square behind these Sycamores.
There are representatives on the roster from all three Vigo County high schools, but even if there wasn’t the local angle, this team plays as hard as any you’ll see. It’s fun to watch, it has a flair for the dramatic. In other words, the Sycamores are worth the price of admission.
Leave it to Hannahs himself to describe them best.
“We may not have the best players in the country, but we have some of the best battlers in the country. They battle for one another. That’s the best thing to sit back and watch. If you sit in the dugout and watch, and as the game goes, they do a great job picking each other up, battling for one another, and playing the game the way it should be played.”
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at 812-231-4272 or todd.golden@trib
star.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.