BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana's baseball goals are there for everyone to see -- etched onto a Scott Rolen Clubhouse wall. On the cusp of NCAA regional action, nobody hides them. From coaches and players, the words are measured, the resolve is noticeable.
As for the implementation?
That's what the regional will determine.
“I've had several people tell me, enjoy the moment,” coach Tracy Smith says. “We're going to do more than enjoy the moment. We're going to try to win.”
The Hoosiers have been here before, in 2009, and messed it up. This time, they insist, is different.
“We're never satisfied,” pitcher Joey DeNato says. “We're playing to move on. Our final goal is to make the College World Series and win it.”
In a season of goals achieved, that is the big one. First is this weekend's four-team regional at IU's Bart Kaufman Field. Win the double-elimination event and you advance to the Super Regional round, with a berth in the College World Series at stake.
But nothing happens unless the top-seeded Hoosiers (43-14) do what they're favored to do. They face Valparaiso (31-26) tonight, a few hours after second-seed Austin Peay (45-13) plays third-seed Florida (29-28). The winners and losers will meet Saturday. A title game is set for Sunday, with the possibility of another on Monday in a winner-take-all showdown if it necessary.
“We have a goal board and the goals were set before the season started,' DeNato says. “Every weekend, whenever we check off one of those goals, it's on to the next one.”
There was the national ranking (No. 8 according to Baseball America), the outright Big Ten regular season championship (the first since 1932), the conference tourney title. All were checked off.
This is the reward and the opportunity. The Hoosiers, Smith says, won't blow it.
“In 2009, the feeling I had was we had a collective sigh of relief that we got to a regional. So much emphasis was to get to a regional. There was not a focus on winning it.
“That's the difference. The mindset now is we're not satisfied.
“I'm not saying we're going to roll through this. We could lose the first two. But I can tell you this, these guys expect to win, want to win and feel like they have a lot of season left to play.”
That means first getting past a Valparaiso team that is in its second straight NCAA regional. The Crusaders, who went 2-10 against teams in the RPI top 100 with a win over then No. 9 Arizona State, have won their last seven games and swept to the Horizon League championship.
“We have a little bit of seniority now,” Valpo coach Tracy Woodson says. “We've got the jitters gone after being in the tournament for the first time in 44 years last season. You're going to see a much more confident team. That's what did us in last year.”
The Crusaders are not an offensive juggernaut, with a .277 average, eight total home runs and 275 runs scored compared to Indiana's .305 average, 47 home runs (catcher Kyle Schwarber has a Big Ten-best 16 homers) and 381 runs scored.
But Valparaiso does have a dominant closer in Karch Kowalczyk, who has 12 saves and a 0.36 earned run average.
“The beauty of our sport,” Smith says, “is that it takes one guy who can shut down the minds and mindset of 65,000 people and that's the pitcher. If you're good on the mound, you can win every game. They're good on the mound. The closer they have, we have to take care of business early, because if they get to that closer, it's going to be tough.”
Still, the pitching edge favors Indiana. Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers (9-1 record, 1.93 ERA, 51 strikeouts and 12 walks) will start. Right behind him is DeNato (8-2, 2.52 ERA, a team-leading 69 strikeouts). The Hoosiers also have two of the nation's best relievers in Scott Effross (2.13 ERA, five saves, 6-1 record) and Ryan Halstead (2.27 ERA, 10 saves)
Pushing for the No. 3 starter is Will Coursen-Carr, the former South Side standout who is 3-0 with a 1.81 earned run average.
“The work ethic of this staff is off the charts,” says assistant coach Ty Neal, who coaches the pitchers. “I respect them more than any guys I've ever coached. They do a great job of holding each other accountable. If a relief pitcher is not taking care of business on his off days, they take care of it. They make sure things are taken care of.
“This staff is so competitive. Every guy wants the baseball, wants to throw strikes, wants to pound the zone, wants to compete. It's been a blessing. We've had a great year and we're good enough to continue to have a great year.”