IU takes role of fan favorite in Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. — In their first 36 hours in Omaha, the Indiana Hoosiers were made to feel like celebrities and the city’s adopted sons.

Nebraska sports fans have a reputation for being welcoming. Visiting teams at Nebraska Cornhuskers football teams get standing ovations. But many of the otherwise neutral local fans the Hoosiers have run into made it clear they will be rooting for Indiana in its opening game of the College World Series against Louisville today at 8 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park. Oregon State and Mississippi State meet at 4 p.m. today and the winners of losers of those games will meet Monday.

Part of the reason the Hoosiers are receiving the support is that they’re making their first ever trip, having won all of one NCAA Tournament game before this season and never advancing out of a regional. But much of it also has to do with the new conference affiliation of the school an hour away in Lincoln.

“It’s been awesome,” redshirt sophomore pitcher Aaron Slegers. “Just shagging fly balls out there (during Friday’s practice). I hear fans saying, ‘Yeah, we saw you pitch at Nebraska. We saw you guys play really well at Nebraska. We’re backing for the Big Ten school. It’s awesome to see you guys out here.’ That sort of thing. … Being in the Midwest, it’s almost sort of natural they rally around the Midwest school. It’s been awesome to be in that role.”

Said first baseman Sam Travis: “I was just in the elevator with two people that go to Nebraska. They said they were rooting for us. ‘We love the Big Ten.’ So we like to hear that.”

As has been well documented, no Big Ten school has been to this event since Barry Larkin’s Michigan team made it in 1984. Other northern schools have made it since, and that actually includes Nebraska. The Cornhuskers made it in 2001, 2002 and 2005, but then they were a member of the Big 12 and benefitted from the traditional powers in the southern half of the conference, including Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Nebraska fans realize it’s better for the Cornhuskers if another team in their conference makes noise in Omaha. It won’t neutralize the climate advantages that southern schools have, but it could at least help recruiting and help Big Ten teams get more respect and benefit of the doubt during tournament selection time.

“We had some nice contests with (Nebraska) down the stretch,” IU coach Tracy Smith said. “But at the end of that contest, coach (Darin) Erstad said, ‘Hey, we’re really pulling for you. Take it all the way to Omaha.’ I think he was very sincere on that. Regardless of what we say about Indiana and all of that, I still think it comes down to, this is a Big Ten team. A Big Ten team hasn’t been here in a while. I think it helps all of us at the end of the day.”

The Hoosiers apparently even have the backing of Omaha’s most famous resident, business magnate and world-renowned investor Warren Buffett, who is the fourth-richest person in the world and second-richest person in America according to Forbes.com as of March.

The “Oracle of Omaha” happened to be eating dinner at an Omaha restaurant where Indiana was holding an event Thursday evening. Smith and IU athletic director Fred Glass made a point to drift in his direction and eventually approach him.

“He was very gracious,” Glass said. “He did say that he recognized the Kelley School at Indiana as being a great business school and that he was rooting for Indiana. If he can pick baseball teams like he can pick stocks, I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

But this Indiana-Louisville matchup isn’t an easy one to pick. The Hoosiers won two of the three matchups during the season, but Louisville claimed the last one 4-3 and the Cardinals come into the College World Series as one of the hottest teams in the nation.

The Big East regular season champions won their final 16 regular season games before going two-and-out in the conference tournament. They’ve won five straight in the NCAA Tournament, however, outscoring opponents 26-10 in the Louisville Regional and sweeping No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt in the Super Regional. All told, they’ve won 21 of their last 23 games.

“The focus the whole last half of the year is just play good baseball, keep it simple,” Louisville right fielder Cole Sturgeon said. “Just focus on the little things, not try to do too much. … (Earlier in the season) I think we kind of looked at bigger pictures instead of smaller pictures kind of looking toward the future, maybe this game in a few weeks or whatever instead of focusing on the moment, being where our feet are and just kind of being in the moment.”

The Cardinals success has come from a balance of power, speed, defense and pitching. Though no one on the team has 10 home runs, middle of the order sluggers Ty Young, Coco Johnson and Jeff Gardner are all slugging .500 or better. Four players have at least 22 stolen bases — the total of Indiana’s leading base-stealer Justin Cureton — and center fielder Adam Engel has 41.

On the mound, the Cardinals have four pitchers who were taken in the top 15 rounds of this year’s Major League Baseball draft. That includes today’s starter Chad Green, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound right-hander. Green gave up seven hits and two runs in four innings when he faced the Hoosiers in the season opener on Feb. 15, but he comes into the game 10-3 with a 2.29 earned run average. And if the Cardinals get to the ninth with a lead, they have a first-team All-Big East closer in Nick Burdi, who has 16 saves, a 0.78 ERA and a 100 mph fastball.

“People have talked about, ‘You’ve beaten them twice this year,’ and all that,” Smith said. “The state is different. We’ve totally thrown that out. … We’ve played them and they’re very good and as (coach Dan McDonnell) said, consistent all year. I think they’re even better right now.”