It’s not just the 45th team in the history of Indiana Softball. And it’s not just how Shonda Stanton has been referring to the group she’ll coach in her first year at Indiana. It’s bigger than that.
It’s a metaphor for change — a representation of not just a new beginning with a new head coach, but a completely new age of softball at IU.
Where expectations have risen and anything less than giving 110-percent is recognized as simply unacceptable.
Stanton comes from excellence, and she’s now bringing it to Indiana.
Compiling over 500 wins in an 18-year career at the helm of Marshall University’s program, Stanton took the Thundering Herd to five conference championships. She also guided Marshall to its first ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2013 and made a second appearance last season. (Indiana’s last two tournament berths? 2011 and 2006.)
“We want to be a program that’s ranked top 25 academically, and the same thing athletically,” Stanton said last week. “We want to win in all three phases — in the classroom, on the field, and in the community.”
The latest @NCAAsoftball preseason polls. #23 ASU will be the first ranked opponent #IUSoftball will face next week in Tempe. Others on IU's schedule include Oklahoma and Kentucky. pic.twitter.com/uIzfAbtkZt
— Connor Hines (@connorhines17) February 3, 2018
These new expectations and changes brought in 2018 boil down to what Stanton calls “competitive excellence.” It’s one of the many mantras the accomplished head coach has already instilled in the minds of her players. She’ll get to coach one of the more experienced groups in program history too, led by a strong squad of returning upperclassmen.
In addition to a tremendous amount of potential for an offense led by senior outfielder Rebecca Blitz, the Hoosiers will return nearly their entire starting rotation from 2017, with the likes of Emily Kirk and Tara Trainer leading the way.
Josie Wood, who sat out 2017 because of injury, will also be a force to be reckoned with inside the circle as she returns this spring.
“We’re excited about the depth we have,” Stanton said. “(Trainer and Wood) can be All-Big Ten performers, and they’re our hardest workers in the weight room. It’s going to be fun to hand them the game ball.”
It's officially game week.
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) February 5, 2018
Perhaps most importantly of all, Stanton carries a key mental element into 2018 that was missing from teams in previous years at IU: self-confidence.
For Indiana’s new leader, it’s never been about what you can do as a team, but what you believe you’re capable of doing.
Still, the challenge for IU this year will be getting the team, especially upperclassmen like Blitz, up to speed and on board with what this program is now all about.
“I think we’ve just really had to adjust to the pace of everything,” Blitz said. “Everything’s so much quicker and we’re learning a lot of new concepts and just really emphasizing our skills and how we can be better players. We’re just picking up our intensity and trying to take our game to the next level.”
It's the final week of offseason for #IUSoftball.
11 days to go until the Hoosiers open the 2018 campaign. pic.twitter.com/q0POoRjeE0
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) January 29, 2018
The Hoosiers’ attitude on the basepaths this spring will be one of the most immediate and visible examples of such an impact. Aggressive baserunning was something Stanton was known for in her time at Marshall and one can only expect it to be the same way now at IU.
“It’s going to take some time, but we have enough speed to have the mentality,” Stanton said. “It’s about a mindset. Whether we have top speed or not, we can bring that swagger to the table. You can’t put a stat on the pressure that you put on defense.”
Blitz, who has accumulated 176 hits and 43 RBI in her three seasons, will be one to steal many of those bases this spring, while playing alongside fellow leaders in senior first baseman Taylor Uden and sophomore utility player Gabbi Jenkins.
As an instrumental component of the program in 2018, Blitz will set the tempo at the top of the lineup.
“It’s really exciting because we know we have the potential to do big things in the Big Ten and in the postseason as well,” Blitz said. “It’s exciting because we have so much experience and we’re learning so much from Coach Stanton that we can take to the next level.”
One week from today, the Hoosiers will be heading to Tempe for the Kajikawa Classic ✈️⚪️🔴 pic.twitter.com/iQUMmdt9en
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) February 1, 2018
It’s undoubtedly a radical change to the face of this program, but a radical change for the better. Over the past nine seasons, IU Softball has gone 194-287-1 overall while going 73-121 in the Big Ten. For a team that has failed to reach the third round of its conference tournament in over a decade, a change comes at the perfect time.
IU will be battle-tested from the start, opening 2018 with a 23-game road stretch before even playing a game in Bloomington.
“It tells you a lot about your team and how you operate,” Stanton said. “Just like everything, we want to win the day even when we’re traveling. We’re on a professional road trip. We’re getting this team to learn how to compete and fight in a five-game weekend.”
The goal for Indiana is clear and IU has a real opportunity to gain back relevance and a competitive edge in the Big Ten and in the national landscape.
“This is a special place and that’s what excited me about coming here,” Stanton said. “I feel like it’s that sleeping giant that just needs to be woken up. You’ve got to know where you came from. There’s teams before you, there’s going to be teams after you and you want to leave it better than you got it.”
Indiana will begin its 2018 season Friday at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, AZ.