With a small smile and a tinge of excitement in her voice, Indiana Softball Head Coach Shonda Stanton said it herself on February 28th.
“It may get worse before it gets better, I’ll be honest,” Stanton said. “But I tell you what, if we stay the course and continue to focus on culture and we start building things, the month of April is going to be something special. I really believe it.”
This wouldn’t be her first rodeo, but it absolutely would be her first in Bloomington – with perhaps a more diverse group of players than she had ever previously seen in her decades worth of coaching. It’s a diverse group that found a way to come together.
Despite differences and despite being told to change the way they think about, act toward, and play the game of softball, in order to somehow turn the page over in 2018.
70 days later and just hours before her first-year team enters postseason play in Madison, Wisconsin, the message remains the same.
Since day one for IU, it’s been about a process, and the buy-in and trust, which has come from every single player on Indiana’s roster in 2018. It has allowed a dream to now become a sudden reality.
It may sound overly simplistic, but getting athletes, especially younger ones who compete at the collegiate level, to understand the importance of buying in to a program and its values is perhaps the most difficult task any head coach can be charged with. The weight it carries cannot be overestimated, perhaps even more so with a first-year head coach.
In her first year at Indiana, Stanton has managed to succeed in doing so.
Stanton’s resume alone set program expectations soaring at the outset of the spring season. As a proven leader of young women who came to IU after setting numerous program and NCAA records in her 18-year tenure with Marshall, Stanton has continuously spoken to the importance of the 2018 season in terms of not only immediate success, but setting a foundation for years to come.
According to Stanton, whether her program would be “built on bedrock or sand” rested on the belief of the group she was presented with upon arriving in Bloomington.
The resting potential of an offense that was given hope a year ago by a flashy freshman from Floyds Knobs, Indiana. A pitching staff that knew they had something else to prove in 2018. A new crop of freshmen who would end up making a huge difference on the base-paths alone. A group of senior veterans providing leadership upfront, beginning with none other than Rebecca Blitz.
From this diverse group of incredibly distinct yet incredibly motivated athletes rose an improbable turnaround and perhaps the most dramatic season-long comeback Hoosier fans have witnessed in recent history.
You’ve probably heard it by now: a 4-19 start in the non-conference preseason gave way to a conference record which was at one point as good as 15-2, following a doubleheader sweep of Purdue in West Lafayette.
??? Taylor Lambert sends a three-run homer to right center to put the Hoosiers up, 3-0! pic.twitter.com/3vrlLLC1yw
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) April 25, 2018
“We just all came together with a mindset of having one common goal. I think everything with us just kind of clicked,” sophomore pitcher Emily Goodin said. “Especially with Big Ten play starting, it just pushed us even more and I think we realized our full potential. Ever since then, we’ve gotten closer as a team. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
For the Hoosiers, it just wasn’t ever about the preseason. And in the eyes of the players and coaching staff, it wouldn’t make sense any other way.
Winners adjust. It’s one of the many maxims Stanton has employed and instilled in the minds of her players in her first year on the job.
There’s a natural “waiting period”, if you will, that any team with a new head coach is obligated to endure while adjusting to a new system. For Indiana, this was certainly no exception.
Before this spring, not a single player on the 2018 roster knew what it feels like to be a part of a team that held a winning record in the Big Ten. Months later, after posting a 17-6 mark in conference play, 3rd seeded Indiana awaits its first opponent, #6 seeded Illinois, Friday in Madison.
Headed to tourney play, Michigan is the lone @B1Gsoftball team inside this week’s NCAA top 25 (16). OSU, Minnesota both sit just outside. @IndianaSB, #3 seed in B1G tournament, gets winner of Illinois/Maryland Friday. Wolverines and Gophers #1 and #2, respectively. #iusoftball
— Connor Hines (@ConnorHines17) May 8, 2018
Stanton brought a system to Bloomington that takes time to instill. Perhaps it took even more time given the sort of results that this program — and those who follow it — have come to almost expect year after year.
Before 2016, the last time Indiana won a Big Ten tournament game was 2006, and the 2012 season was the last time the program finished with a winning conference record (14-10)
It didn’t happen overnight, but those pitchers, that freshman class, that flashy offense, and those senior leaders bought in. Most notably was an immediate effort to make Indiana an all-around more aggressive team. Whether it be prioritizing pitchers to get ahead in the count early, swinging early and often at the plate, or not being afraid to take the extra 60 feet on the base-paths.
The Hoosiers aren’t afraid to take the extra 60 feet on the base-paths.
Blitz’s stolen bag on April 21st against Penn State broke another program record, the most stolen bases in a single season since 1988. In total, Indiana has stolen 111 bases in 2018. The program has even found a place for two freshmen on the field, Makayla Ferrari and Carolyn Kuhn, succeeding as pinch runners this spring with 19 and seven stolen bases, respectively.
It’s about taking the next 60 feet. ??? pic.twitter.com/0VvpovtHZO
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) April 25, 2018
“We’ve just really had to adjust to the pace of everything,” Blitz said in the preseason. “Everything’s so much quicker and we’re learning a lot of new concepts and really just picking up our intensity.”
Indiana’s four wins in its first 23 games of the year reflects the purpose of the preseason for a first-year team. It wasn’t to assess the team’s potential immediately out of the gate.
Stanton knew success would be hard to come by until everyone was on the same page. In order to find what Stanton calls “progress in the process,” the Hoosiers needed games against the likes of Georgia Tech, Samford, and USC Upstate.
“We’ll only get better,” Stanton said. “I really believe this group wants it. They want this year to be different. They want change. Right now, it’s just about getting better. The result will take care of itself.”
If there was a legitimate concern for the team and coaching staff in February and March, it was the offensive production, but even that came along as well. Both Jenkins and Blitz started the year slow and inconsistent at the plate, but by the time conference play began, both had raised their batting averages well above the .300 mark, and it’s been more of the same ever since.
By looking beyond the result itself, it was easy to see that Indiana had the pieces to the puzzle all the way along; it was just about putting it all together.
Goodin striking out 10 in 3.2 innings against Lipscomb. Sarah Galovich gaining consistency and driving in runs against Samford and South Carolina. Tara Trainer showing signs of life and striking out 16 on February 24.
“When there’s transition and there’s change, there’s a lot that needs to be worked out,” Stanton said during the preseason. “We’ll stay the course, and we’ll see results in Big Ten play.”
There was never worry. Just calm, cool and confidence. There was struggle, but there was also always progress, as a team that came in as a mere collection of talented individuals who showed moments of greatness began to buy in to a system, evolving as one.
It was almost as if they knew all along success would eventually come based solely on the fact that this entire team was trusting each other and trusting a process, getting hungrier by the day.
Yeah, trusting the process. For Indiana Softball, clichés became the reality.
“We’re feeling really confident in our ability to win a ballgame,” sophomore Gabbi Jenkins said. “A team effort is what’s getting us there.”
Since IU hosted Ohio State on the weekend of March 23 to open conference play, Indiana has effectively built a purpose around the program. The improvements have been about timely hitting, getting out to an early lead, and locking things down in the circle beginning with Trainer and Goodin.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but it’ll do for a first round bye and the highest tournament seed received since 2011.
After a 3-11 preseason, Trainer (First Team All-Big Ten) has bounced back, lowering her season ERA to that of 2.53 and securing 13 more wins to her name since that rocky start. Goodin has also provided much needed support and relief in the circle when called upon, relishing her new role in the bullpen.
Jenkins has hit well for average, as expected, entering the postseason hitting .386 with 15 RBI. Out of nowhere has come freshman phenom Maddie Westmoreland (First Team All-Big Ten), who can be credited with much of IU’s clutch scoring, driving home an astounding 51 runs and finding the long ball ten times as well.
Congrats to junior Tara Trainer and freshman Maddie Westmoreland, who have been named First Team All-Big Ten.
— Indiana Softball (@IndianaSB) May 9, 2018
From there, the rest has taken care of itself. The attitude has proven to be contagious, as Lambert, Lacefield, Uden, and Norton have all contributed in their own regard, too.
If there’s any reason to be concerned headed to Madison, it’s how the team finished, losing four of its last six between two series versus Michigan and at Rutgers. IU played close with a group of Wolverines that have been at the top of the conference all year long and in the national conversation.
If anything, it showed that Indiana truly can compete with the best, including what was at the time a Michigan team ERA of 1.03. The Hoosiers simply couldn’t string enough together in last Friday’s doubleheader in Piscataway, though IU was able to come away with Sunday’s 4-3 victory.
Still, the message remains the same.
“Even though the weekend as a whole didn’t go as we hoped, we have some momentum going into the Big Ten tournament,” Stanton said. “I’m really proud of this group and the way they’ve truly battled in conference play.”
A Hoosier win Friday would likely set up a Saturday semi final with #2 Minnesota, as top seed Michigan lurks on the other side of the bracket. Indiana though will first have to tackle the Fighting Illini, a team that was not at all a part of the Hoosiers’ 2018 conference schedule.
The reality is that this team isn’t done evolving, and won’t be before this season concludes. It has been and will continue to be about making an effort as a group to control what sits in front of them and only getting better from here.
Now, that attention turns to postseason play this weekend in Madison and even a potential NCAA tournament berth beyond. Say what you will about the postseason possibilities in 2018 or the future of the program, but one thing does remain clear.
A group of athletes have bought into a new system, and a winning culture has arrived in Indiana. Shonda Stanton’s Hoosiers have built themselves an identity — an identity worth winning for.