On paper going into Friday’s NCAA baseball regional, it seemed that Indiana State had an advantage in its first game against McNeese State.
If you had to pick the weakest No. 3 seed in the entire NCAA field? The Cowboys would get some votes. After all, McNeese State was just nine games over .500 entering Friday’s game and the Cowboys had finished in a tie for the fifth-place in the Southland Conference, the 12th-best in the nation.
While some complained about ISU being placed in the Nashville Regional with SEC champion Vanderbilt, it was undeniable - on paper anyway - that the Sycamores had a relatively smooth road to a potential winner’s bracket contest and a matchup with host and No. 2-in-the-nation Vanderbilt.
Compared to playing, say, Florida? Or Clemson? Or Florida State? All of the above are No. 3s at other regional sites. You’d pick McNeese State every time. Some at Vanderbilt wondered whether Ohio State, the No. 4-seed, and McNeese State could have been flipped seed-wise.
However, it’s easy to forget that Indiana State is going through the NCAA Tournament for the first time themselves. The Sycamores may very well have had an outstanding 41-16 season entering the regional, with an inspiring Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship to go with it, but none of that means much once the bullets start flying in the big show.
To some degree, the Sycamores learned that lesson against the Cowboys, who proved that judging anyone on paper is fool’s gold.
ISU got everything it wanted from McNeese State. The Cowboys scrapped. The Cowboys put pressure on the Sycamores from the first inning onward. The Cowboys, at times, outplayed the Sycamores.
That ISU was able to win anyway by a 6-5 count is a testament to how deep and balanced the Sycamores are and how tough they can be when they need to be too. Relief pitcher Tyler Grauer, the MVP of the game by my reckoning, embodied the Sycamores’ determination and work ethic by throwing four innings, his longest of the season.
The Sycamores don’t quit. They haven’t all season. But ISU found out that the opposition doesn’t quit either. If the Sycamores let their guard down at any point? They will get beat.
ISU coach Mitch Hannahs knows it. He knows ISU walked on the right side of a fine line between feeling good or feeling distraught.
“There’s a pride thing that goes into all of this. As much as you win a conference tournament and go to the NCAA tournament? It’s a hollow feeling when you come in and don’t play well. There’s also a hollow feeling if you get to a championship game and don’t win it. I think a lot of people think these guys will come in and feel good. If you’re a competitor? It gets to you if you lose those close games. I’m thankful we got the first one out of the way,” Hannahs said.
The Sycamores won’t have to sleep tonight consumed by what if’s? McNeese State, for as good as it played, will likely have a few. The Cowboys changed pitchers before Dane Tofteland’s important two-run home run in the fifth inning. The Cowboys had runners stranded in scoring position five times and ended the second inning with a caught stealing.
The Cowboys had little to hang their heads about otherwise, but in a four-team regional? Even the smallest shortcomings are magnified. The Sycamores avoided that trap themselves, but started down its abyss plenty of times.
Even being on the winning side, Hannahs was regretting one circumstance in the game that led to a two-run McNeese State triple.
“We have a 3-1 [count] to the No. 2 hitter. All year we’ve done a good job in the outfield changing outfield depth on hitters’ counts and then we get caught shallow and they hit it over our head for a triple. We made some mistakes too,” Hannahs said.
In the end? What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. McNeese State put forth a very valiant effort in trying to knock the Sycamores into the loser’s bracket. That ISU survived its ordeal should help it face the ordeals to come.
And make no mistake … ISU will face significantly tougher situations moving forward. Beating Vanderbilt will be enough of a chore. The Sycamores learned Friday that giving an inch will almost certainly result in their opponent taking a mile.
Hannahs struck a positive tone after ISU passed its test of mettle.
“I don’t think our guys didn’t think this wasn’t going to be a tough game. You could tell by the mood in the dugout they knew we were in a dogfight, but I think the more dogfights you come out of, win, and overcome some things? Our players did a good job battling through things. With every one you get through? You get a little more momentum,” Hannahs said.
The Sycamores hope so. They got a good taste of what they’re up against on Friday.
Todd Aaron 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.