IU softball ready for next challenge

A successful weekend in Florida left the Hoosiers eager to wonder.

They won all five games at the Florida Atlantic First Pitch Classic, knocked off the No. 6 team in the nation and returned home ranked inside the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll for the first time since 1996.

It all had Indiana’s softball team pondering the question — what can the Hoosiers do next?

“All of a sudden, your eyes are open,” IU coach Shonda Stanton said. “What other possibilities are out there? We haven’t been ranked in the poll since 1996, so it’s something where now you’re looking around like, ‘OK, what else can we do?’ Now, you don’t put limitations on yourself.”

The hot start to the season has the No. 24 Hoosiers ready to rise beyond their station. A year after finishing third in the Big Ten and totaling its most conference wins (17) since 2011, Indiana is picking up where it left off.

Last weekend in Boca Raton, Fla., was a continuation of where IU finished Stanton’s first season at the helm. Now, the Hoosiers have the early-season momentum they need to proceed with the program transformation Stanton seeks to oversee in Bloomington.

“It opens our eyes a lot,” pitcher Tara Trainer said. “I think a lot of the game is confidence and mentality. We know what we can do, so there’s really no excuse to not do it.”

Last season, Stanton’s first after jumping to IU from Marshall, Indiana started 4-19 and didn’t win its fifth game until March 16. A week later, IU swept No. 18 Ohio State — the first of five conference sweeps. From there, IU’s roll continued.

The Hoosiers won 22 of their final 33 games in 2018, leaning on both a balanced lineup and a pitching staff capable of separating itself as one of the Big Ten’s best. IU pitchers combined to work to a 1.56 ERA in league play — third-best in the conference — while striking out 135 batters in 144 innings.

“The success in Big Ten play showed everybody that nothing happened mid-year where, all of a sudden, we had a bunch of transfers come in,” Stanton said. “When we played Ohio State that March weekend, it just came down to owning the moment and staying within the moment, just playing for that day and playing for that pitch. When you start to do that, you have a moment, I have a moment, and you get to the end of the game and we’ve strung our moments together and we’re successful. … I’m really proud of this group in Year 2 understanding that mindset a little bit better.”

Indiana’s play last weekend built to a crescendo with a 6-4 victory over No. 6 Georgia on Sunday morning. The Hoosiers fell behind 2-0 in the third inning on back-to-back sacrifice flies before responding in the fourth. Indiana plated three runs in the inning, manufacturing them with station-to-station softball. Grayson Radcliffe’s two-run homer in the seventh gave Indiana the insurance it needed.

The Hoosiers finished the weekend with a .311 team batting average, with three players — Radcliffe, Taylor Lambert and Gabbi Jenkins — collecting six hits.

But it was in the circle where Indiana earned its perfect weekend. The starting duo of Trainer, a senior, and freshman Natalie Foor combined to allow only six earned runs in 27 innings, striking out 24 batters and walking only six.

Trainer, who earned All-Big Ten First Team honors last spring, also got a chance to show off her new pitch. During the off-season, she traded her drop curve for a more traditional curveball that has allowed her to establish more of the outside corner of the plate.

“Our pitching performance was outstanding,” Stanton said. “Tara had four walks on the weekend, but three of them were intentional. We wanted to put the kid on to pitch to the next kid, so we were limiting our freebies and we were attacking the zone. We were extremely pleased with our pitching. We knew that was an area that we felt confident with going in. You still never know. It’s opening weekend, but we were pretty fired up about what our pitching staff did.”

Rightfully so. It all added up to IU’s best start since the 1990 campaign, when coach Diane Stephenson’s Hoosiers started 10-0.

Back at practice this week, the Hoosiers are feeling the jolt ahead of this weekend’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Durham, N.C., where IU will face off against Duke and Syracuse.

“I think everybody is pretty excited about where we’re at right now,” Trainer said.

Excited about both what they’ve done, and what they could do next.

“Do we believe now, internally, that we should be a relevant program and we can matter and that we’re Indiana and it’s time to act like it? 100 percent,” Stanton said. “I think that’s been the change in Year 2.”

Courtesy photo | IU Athletics

3 comments

  1. BeatPurdue, it’s strictly the coach! We have mostly the same players we had last year. With the way they finished last year, this year’s start is not a surprise? Go Hoosiers!!

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