Hoosiers play to identity in Big Ten Tournament opener

Over the past three months, Indiana has formed an identity as one of the Big Ten’s most aggressive teams.

The Hoosiers have seized upon opportunities to steal bases, stretch singles into doubles and play a brand of small ball that puts opponents on guard. In Thursday’s conference tournament opener at Andy Mohr Field, IU played to its personality.

Seventh-seeded Indiana worked out of an early deficit by manufacturing a flurry of runs across the second and third innings to dispatch No. 10 Penn State, 4-2, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

A squeeze, a double steal and a string of bunt base hits were part of IU’s winning equation, propelling the Hoosiers (36-20) into a second-round matchup against No. 2 Northwestern on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

“We know our identity is being scrappy,” sophomore Grayson Radcliffe said, “taking the next 60 feet, doing everything we can to scrap across hits and get those next 60 feet. That’s what we’re all about. That’s what we’re coached to do and we execute every chance we can get.”

Radcliffe was at the heart of IU’s comeback effort, helping the Hoosiers overcome an early deficit after Penn State’s Destiny Weber took IU pitcher Tara Trainer deep for a two-run homer in the top of the first.

Radcliffe led off the bottom of the second with a line drive double to left field, charging hard around first base and taking second with ease.

“I was thinking two all the way,” Radcliffe said.

It was a sign of things to come from Indiana, which has made a habit of commandeering extra bases and playing with an assertive, in-your-face style all season. Radcliffe moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Katie Lacefield, then scored on a squeeze bunt by Bella Norton.

For the Hoosiers, it was an aggressive inning all around. That style carried over to the third, when back-to-back bunt singles by TeTe Hart and Taylor Lambert put runners on the corners and allowed coach Shonda Stanton to take a chance on some more high-risk, high-reward strategy. Stanton called for a double steal that was executed crisply and effectively by Lambert and Hart, who sprinted home to tie the game at 2-2.

“We gotta take chances to manufacture some runs at times,” Stanton said, “especially off of a good pitcher like (Penn State’s Bailey) Parshall that they have in the circle. You look at the Penn State weekend last weekend, we hit. 176. They hit .128. So we thought we had to scratch for runs across early, then we could go ahead and see what we could barrel up. It just kept opening up for us. … In the top of the third inning, it was bunt city, steal city.”

Indiana took the lead moments after the double steal, when an errant throw allowed Lambert to score from second. Maddie Westmoreland capped the inning with an RBI single through the left side to make it 4-2.

IU, which entered play ranked fourth nationally with 137 steals, finished with four stolen bases, six hits and zero errors.

From the second inning on, the Hoosiers played to their soul.

“We’ve talked all week about really taking notice of those micro-moments and what people are doing,” Radcliffe said. “When everyone executes and gets their job done, what more can you (ask)? We have a team full of athletes that just want it right now.”

The evening began with a rocky first inning for Trainer, IU’s ace. The senior starter struggled with her command, issuing three walks, throwing a wild pitch and serving up the two-run homer to Weber.

After throwing three straight balls to Ally Kurland, the No. 6 hitter in Penn State’s lineup, Trainer drew a visit to the circle from IU’s coaching staff, then responded with a quick strikeout of Lilia Crouthamel to end the inning.

Trainer finished with five walks over four innings, throwing only 35 of her 80 pitches for strikes. Emily Goodin worked the final three innings, holding the Nittany Lions (24-32) hitless, while striking out two.

“I thought Tara settled in,” Stanton said. “We’d give her the game ball any day and every day. Goodin was huge. We thought she’d pound the zone a little bit more and give us some more strikes. Plus, the different speeds we thought would be a really good counter. It was nice. We told Tara we may need to go back to her because we’re gonna ride her out.”

Northwestern starter Danielle Williams will challenge Indiana on Friday. Williams, a candidate for college softball’s national freshman of the year honor, leads the Big Ten with 27 wins and a 8.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while her 266 strikeouts entering the weekend rank second in the league. She earned 10 of those strikeouts in a March 16 shutout win over the Hoosiers at Andy Mohr Field.

After the tournament opener, the Hoosiers were feeling loose and ready to keep going. With a clearly established identity, they know how they want to play.

Thursday was another example of what that style can do for them.

“That was fun,” Stanton said.