It seems unfair.
Indiana State's baseball team had its best season since 1990 and one of its baseball seasons ever. So how does it end? With an 11-run loss to No. 2 Vanderbilt on its home field that was far closer for most of the game than the final score indicated. It added up to a late-night (the game ended at 12:15 a.m. EDT Monday) to stew over the what if's every team mulls when a season comes to an end.
Three of ISU seniors — Clay Dungan, Roby Enriquez and C.J. Huntley — were frog-marched into the media room to answer questions that they don't have answers for and may not for quite some time. I asked the questions, it's my job, but sometimes the more restricted NCAA environments don't take time-and-place considerations to heart for the interview subjects.
"I don't even know what to say to that," said Huntley, when asked about the legacy of his senior group shortly after the game ended. "We have a very good team and a special group. It's awesome we have such a great group of guys. It's just tough to swallow right now."
It was a harsh final chapter, but then, the end of seasons almost always are that way. When the end comes? It's jarring how abrupt it feels.
But then, most teams aren't remembered for their final moment. That will certainly be the case for these Sycamores who will be remembered for the remarkably consistent and white-hot flame they burned at throughout 2019.
You hear a lot that good teams are greater than the sum of their parts. I don't know if any ISU team I've covered fits that definition more than these Sycamores did.
And here's a way to know that's true. Ask yourself this — who was the MVP of this ISU team? There's an argument that can be made for just about every starter on the team and several pitchers too.
Defensively? The Sycamores were almost never going to beat themselves. The infield — Chris Means, Dungan, Jarrod Watkins and Dane Tofteland going left to right — was stout. The outfield — Huntley, Luke Fegen and Enriquez — covered acres of real estate. Max Wright was a rock at catcher.
ISU lost pitcher Tristan Weaver before the season began — imagine if ISU had him this season? — but even without him, ISU had easily it' most consistent starting rotation n years. Triston Polley, Collin Liberatore and Tyler Whitbread were a triple threat any team would envy. It's no wonder the Sycamores had seven series sweeps and won 10 weekend series overall.
Tyler Grauer and Tyler Ward were both steady out of the bullpen and Geremy Guerrero was a workhorse as a mid-week starter and in the weekend bullpen. ISU's team ERA was top 20 in the nation. Not coincidentally, it's why the Sycamores found themselves ranked in the national poll by season's end.
ISU coach Mitch Hannahs knew what he had with this team. All along, he's lauded the Sycamores' ability to police themselves and create accountability.
The truth is that it starts with Hannahs himself. From the day he took over, he's created an honest, excuse-free culture that doesn't allow for players (or coaches) to delude themselves into believing they're better than they are or not face up to team weaknesses. For all of the self-policing the veteran Sycamores did? That trait comes from the top.
Hannahs did allow himself the courtesy of being blunt in the postgame press conference. Having played Vandy for several years now? Hannahs knew what ISU was up against. It's why the Nashville Regional, while convenient to ISU fans and a fun place to be, was not on his preferred list of destinations.
"I still feel, personally, that we could have gone to six or eight [other] regionals and won that dadgum thing. Whoever walks into this [Super Regional] had better pack a lunch. [Vanderbilt] is a very good team," Hannahs said.
The dead of a long Sunday night at the ballpark was no time for reflection, but when that time comes for these Sycamores? This ISU group accomplished more than any team has done in decades for Sycamore athletics.
The 43 wins were the most since 1990. The regional final berth was the first since 1986 and it was the first time any team sport at ISU won two games in the same NCAA tournament since the 1986 College World Series team did it. Add to that a remarkable MVC Tournament championship, done the hard way, with three of four elimination game wins against teams (Illinois State, Dallas Baptist) that themselves made regional finals elsewhere.
"These guys don't get anything. They're at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to what they get to be a Division I athlete. To go out and battle and do the things they do? It's been a joy to coach them. You would think these guys would want more, more, more, but this group didn't ask for anything. All they asked for was a uniform and a chance to play and let's see what happens," Hannahs said.
The Sycamores were so close to making something happen. Vanderbilt scored 11 of its 20 runs against the Sycamores over the course of two games with two outs, almost all of them coming when the direction of the game was still in doubt. Oh, the what if's? What if Grauer hadn't had to pitch four innings against McNeese State in the opener? What if Vanderbilt didn't score its ninth-inning insurance runs in the Saturday game? What if the 7-4-3 double play Huntley started had turned out to to be the momentum changer it felt like at the time?
There's more what if's to wonder about, but it's pointless to have regrets. Vanderbilt is a great team and it took a great team, a likely College World Series winner, to knock the Sycamores out of the box. Sometimes, you just tip your cap. Certainly, the Commodores did to the Sycamores.
"That's a very tough team. It's one of the oldest teams I've ever seen on the field and tough to put away. You don't ever feel like they're going away," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.
Life moves fast. The MLB Draft began on Monday. By Tuesday and Wednesday? Many of these Sycamores will be fated to new destinations in their baseball life journeys.
But before they go, they ought to be appreciated. These Sycamores gave ISU its best team sport performance in the 21st Century — if you judge by sheer wins and NCAA success. Their place in ISU's overall athletic history is secure.
Vanderbilt is awesome, but these unassuming, nose-to-the-grindstone Sycamores were pretty great too. One bad Sunday night doesn't change one bit of that.
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 at @TribStarTodd.