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‘That somebody was the Indiana Hoosiers:’ IU Softball’s identity after wild opening weekend

March 16th, 2018

That was the day when Indiana Softball finally secured its fifth win of the season in the Hoosiers’ home opener against the University of Illinois-Chicago. It took 35 days into Shonda Stanton’s first year to do it.

Senior Tara Trainer throws during a simulated game inside Mellencamp Pavilion (Kurt Spitler/HN).

Almost a year later, the narrative is much different while the message for Stanton’s group remains the same. This time around, it took just three days of play for Indiana to lock up its fifth straight win over #6 ranked Georgia 6-4, finishing off an undefeated opening weekend in south Florida at the FAU First Pitch Classic. Things got off on the right foot Friday morning as IU came out and dominated both Virginia and then Bethune Cookman, behind a stellar performance from freshman right hander Natalie Foor. 

The Hoosiers carried that momentum into Saturday, exploding for 11 runs against St. John’s. That run-rule victory would be followed by a 4-1 win over host Florida Atlantic, as Indiana moved to 4-0 on the young season minutes before midnight in Boca Raton.

Finally, the weekend culminated with one of the Hoosiers’ biggest challenges of the year. After Georgia struck first blood in the third, IU quickly recovered, making junior Mary Wilson Avant seem like anything but a 12-5 starter in 2018 who appeared twice in the Women’s College World Series. With the Bulldogs cutting it to a one-run Indiana lead in the sixth, first-year Hoosier Grayson Radcliffe came through in the clutch, sending a two-run shot off the right field scoreboard to put it out of reach. With that win IU moved to 5-0, the program’s best start since 1990.

“You always say every year that somebody someplace is going to do something special,” Stanton said. “That somebody was the Indiana Hoosiers down in Boca Raton and we took care of business, and come back as a top 25 team. Is that not fun? That’s exciting.”

With 5-0 record to their name, the Hoosiers find themselves at #24 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll; it’s the first time IU has appeared since May of 1996. The Hoosiers also locked up the #16 spot in Softball America’s first top 25 poll of the year. So, with a wild first weekend behind them and matchups against Duke and Syracuse on the horizon this weekend, where does Indiana stand? 

Everything begins (and ends) in the circle

Pitching, hitting, and defense — Shonda Stanton often talks about her team working toward having two of the three in hand if they want to play the way they’d like to in 2019. One of those is already a near certainty and it starts with senior Tara Trainer. In 16 innings of work across four games last weekend, Indiana’s ace allowed just five runs and four walks, while striking out 16. Though there is certainly some room for improvement — Trainer has set the tone for the season.

“Tara had that bounce-back ability,” Stanton said after Sunday’s win. “Whether it was giving up a big hit, whether it was the defense not making a play, she stayed steady, she stayed calm. That’s what your senior leader does.”

Trainer, who swapped her drop curve for a more traditional curveball in the offseason, relied on that new pitch, along with her screw, rise, and changeup to improve to 3-0 on the young season. Last season she began 2018 with seven straight losses to her name. Though run support ended up making the difference on Sunday, the senior clutched up, locked in, and got Georgia’s hot bats to strike out when it mattered most. It was an all-time performance, and one to remember — a performance Trainer will likely be asked to replicate at least a few more times this season. In a sport where pitching and momentum mean so much, Indiana’s hot start might have a ripple effect moving forward, and that was evident as soon as game two with freshman Natalie Foor.

Twirling a complete game gem in a 2-1 win over Bethune Cookman, Foor has certainly asserted herself as the most likely #2 in Indiana’s rotation this year. The Alabama native surrendered just two hits and one run in seven innings pitched, walking two and striking out four. It might appear as a more conservative performance on paper, but it’s clear to see that the intangibles, poise, and maturity are already there. Foor also started Saturday’s second contest under the lights against FAU, pitching four innings of one-run ball before being relieved by Trainer, who proceeded to strike out seven. 

Not all college programs will have the luxury of playing with a complete staff of pitchers this coming season, but after this weekend it appears as if Indiana will. If the first weekend is in any way indicative of what is still to come, Trainer and Foor thrive in building a foundation for the staff, and the team as a whole. Ready if called upon, veteran Emily Goodin (‘18: 7-5, 2.24 ERA, 101 strikeouts) will be as important as ever in relief and even as a spot starter if needed in such a capacity. The icing on the cake is left-hander Josie Wood (two innings of scoreless relief vs. St. John’s), who will look for more innings of work to bring balance to the staff.

Setting the tone

Since the day she moved into her office at Andy Mohr Field, Shonda Stanton has been intentional about her team playing the role of the aggressor every time they take the field. In 2018, Indiana ranked second in the conference in total bases stolen (112) and first in total steal attempts (158). Though last season’s leader Rebecca Blitz (29) has since departed, IU adds even more speed and depth in 2019. Gabbi Jenkins, who ranked second on the team a season ago, made an immediate impact, stealing twice last Friday against Virginia and once more versus Bethune Cookman.  For a program with a still-emerging identity, setting the tone and applying pressure early in games has been a major key to getting ahead. The early aggression has taken the pressure off Indiana’s pitching so far this season.

“That’s how we operate, it’s just common practice for us to be aggressive,” Stanton said. “It really paid off, I don’t care who you’re playing. That’s going to be our game.”

Indiana finished the weekend with a total of 17 stolen bags, as Taylor Lambert, Grayson Radcliffe, Camryn Woodall, Bella Norton, Juvia Davis, Tete Hart, Makayla Ferrari, Karly Combs, and Paige Chitwood all got in on the action. But it goes beyond just taking the next 60 feet.

The Hoosiers struck first blood three times last weekend, and scored in the first inning on two occasions, including a 9-run barrage against St. John’s, putting it out of reach within the first 25 minutes. IU outscored opponents 32-7 on the weekend and batted .311 as a team, compared to a .198 opponent average. Pressuring the opposing starter out of the gate has clearly helped Indiana’s cause and is another tell-tale sign of improved confidence and self-belief. In many ways, that’s half the battle already won.

“The success will come when we stay in the moment and take care of business,” Stanton said. “For us this weekend, we took care of business. I like our mindset.”

Indiana takes that perfect record to Durham, North Carolina this weekend for games against Duke and Syracuse as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In just their second year as a program, the Blue Devils stand 3-2 on the year, after opening the season south of the border in the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge. Meanwhile, Syracuse will look to get back on track after a 1-3 start, dropping two last weekend to national title contender Oklahoma. But for Indiana? It’s just another opportunity to learn a little more about what this team’s made of in 2019.

Connor Hines

I am a sophomore from San Diego, California studying in Indiana University's Media School. Beyond my work with The Hoosier Network, I'm a broadcaster for WIUX 99.1 FM, IU's student radio station, and BTN Student U. I previously served as beat reporter for Indiana Softball during my freshman year, and I look forward to continue to deliver fresh and innovative content with softball and much more during this year. Last summer, I interned with San Diego's Mighty 1090, the flagship AM sports radio station in my hometown. Tweet me your hot takes @ConnorHines17. Email: cohines@iu.edu

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