Hoosiers believe in themselves ahead of Big Ten Tournament

Last weekend was good, but not good enough for Indiana.

The Hoosiers won their series at Penn State, but squandered their shot at a sweep after collecting only three hits in a 2-0 loss in the finale. On the bus ride back to Bloomington, players were crestfallen. Shonda Stanton was glad to see it.

“It’s nice to be in a place where when you only take two of three on the weekend, you’re disappointed,” Stanton said.

Stanton, IU’s second-year coach, senses it wasn’t always like this for Indiana’s softball program. Winning two of three games may have been enough to fuel satisfaction among players in previous seasons, but this year, expectations have changed.

So Stanton spoke up as the team traveled back to Indiana, applauding all the things her Hoosiers are capable of doing well, while stressing the need to string those strengths together on a consistent basis.

This week, as Indiana prepares to host the Big Ten Tournament at Andy Mohr Field, that will be the challenge.

“If we have deep faith in the bright spots, we know we can put all those bright spots together for one weekend,” Stanton said.

Doing so is crucial for IU’s postseason hopes beyond this weekend. The seventh-seeded Hoosiers enter Thursday afternoon’s conference tournament opener against No. 10 Penn State seemingly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Indiana is ranked 48th in the RPI in need of a win or two to boost its profile.

To get those victories, Indiana knows what it needs to do.

“The main thing is to look into the little things that really work for us,” said sophomore Maddie Westmoreland, who earned All-Big Ten First Team honors on Wednesday for the second year in a row. “It’s really just emphasizing that we really need to push and emphasize what we’re really good at.”

There are plenty of things that this Indiana team does well, a tribute to the program’s first 30-win season since 2012. The Hoosiers are aggressive on the base paths, where they’ve set a new program record with 137 stolen bases. They’re tough in the circle, with 410 strikeouts as a staff — good for fourth-most in IU history.

They’re also capable of stringing together hits, with five players batting at least .291 on the season. That includes Westmoreland, who leads IU with a .320 average and ranks second on the team with eight home runs.

Timely, situational hitting will be among the primary keys for Indiana this weekend, especially after it picked up only 13 total hits across last weekend’s series against the Nittany Lions.

“Neither team hit particularly well over the weekend,” Stanton said. “And that’s an understatement. We did come up with a clutch hit and a timely hit in two of the games. One of the games, we had two bombs. The other game, (Annika Baez) did a nice job with a single up the middle after there was a walk and a hit batter. We have to put more pressure on them and do the things that we do well. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

That starts in the circle with senior pitcher Tara Trainer, whose 225 strikeouts rank seventh on IU’s single-season leaderboard. Last week in State College, Trainer picked up a pair of wins, while fanning 17 in 13 2/3 innings.

“You gotta give credit where credit is due,” Stanton said. “Tara Trainer has been a big reason (for our success).”

With so much on the line, Indiana takes comfort in its hosting duties. The Hoosiers are 11-5 at Andy Mohr Field this season, including an 8-3 mark in conference games. IU is also batting .326 in Bloomington this season, as opposed to hitting merely .242 away from home.

“Playing here, there’s no better feeling than that,” Westmoreland said. “Having our home fans and home support system is really exciting for us. We’re just really pumped. It’s really comforting to stay here. We’re excited about that.
And excited about the possibilities.

As the Hoosiers went about authoring the best start in program history, winning each of their first 14 games of the season, they started to think big. They beat a pair of top-10 teams, Georgia and LSU, and moved into the polls, themselves.

All the while, they began to believe in their potential.

This weekend, Indiana’s mission is to fully tap into that upside and extend its season beyond the Big Ten Tournament.

“The only thing we have to worry about is taking care of ourselves and taking care of business,” Stanton said. “It starts with being plus-one against Penn State.”

Photo courtesy of IU Athletics