For Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer, his message to his team is simple: from here on out, every game is a playoff game. To have that pressure is a privilege, and Mercer hopes his Hoosier squad can wear it as a badge of honor.
In a week where Indiana had five games — none of them for any standing in the conference the Hoosiers are vying to win for the first time since 2019 — Mercer understands that the possibility for a letdown existed when the visiting Ohio Bobcats marched into Bloomington.
On any day this weekend, the fatigue of a double midweek slate or comedown from the emotional highs of momentum-building wins could’ve come back to bite the Hoosiers and cause a slip up. But Mercer’s guys keep their focus. They kept showing up.
“You’re starting to see the leadership from within, we talk about guys like Bobby (Whalen) and Phil (Glasser) and other guys, really start to step forward,” Mercer said on Sunday following Indiana’s 9-2 win over Ohio.
The Hoosiers completed a clean three-game sweep of the Bobcats, expressing dominance over the MAC foe for much of the weekend. Mix in the two victories over Louisville and Cincinnati before the series, and Indiana put together a 5-for-5 week.
“Every good team I’ve ever been a part of has always been player-led,” Mercer continued. “They need guidance, kind of like the bumper lane, but after that, once they have it, they gotta go.”
Holding each other accountable and to a high standard prevents a team with the talent of Indiana’s from overlooking anyone. This season, they’ve done nothing but control what they can control. As reward and vindication for their efforts, Sunday’s victory means they’re the first Big Ten team this season to eclipse 30 overall wins on the year.
From an extended view, the program has found success in entrusting its youth with a lion’s share of the production throughout both the lineup and pitching rotations. Mercer’s methodology isn’t much different from other formulas to success: the recruitment of young talent is essential to the foundation, but the development is what carries them forward. Yet, what separates Indiana’s situation is the personnel involved in the process.
It isn’t just juniors and seniors teaching up freshmen and sophomores. It’s freshmen and sophomores communicating with themselves, too.
Young guys who have become mainstays at the plate and on the mound now have the experience of their upperclassmen counterparts. They’ve experienced the same hardships and enjoyed the same success. They’ve competed with the same top talent and come out of the other side of things better for it. At this point, those young guys aren’t young guys anymore.
“I think that’s where their mindset has to stay,” Mercer said. “Yes, Phillip Glasser has played more baseball games, but you’ve essentially seen the same things he’s seen. So you have to hold yourself to that same standard that he does now.”
Josh Pyne was in this same situation a season ago. One part of the impressive freshman class that made its mark early and often last year, he’s now a key cog in the youth-powered machine-like offense that Indiana is boasting of late. He came in ready to work his freshman year and looked anything but an apprentice. Despite his sophomore status, his experience and success give his voice weight in the Indiana locker room. He isn’t the only one who will keep this team in check, either.
“We have a lot of really outspoken guys on the team, and they’ll just tell you what they see,” Pyne said. “That’s a big thing, I think. Being honest with each other is what makes us a really good team.
“Not trying to sugarcoat anything, moving past failure and looking at the next inning, the next pitch, the next game, just moving forward.”
The Hoosiers didn’t check out of Cincinnati because they beat Louisville. They didn’t overlook Ohio because of next weekend’s Big Ten bout with Maryland. If it isn’t the team that’s directly in front of the Hoosiers, they aren’t concerned about them.
To do so and find success, a team must have the prerequisite rapport, trust and chemistry that the Hoosiers have seemingly found amongst themselves. They spend so much time with each other — on and off the field — that Pyne says it feels as if they’ve played together for years beyond their class level would suggest. It’s easier when a group has a common goal that everyone aims toward — for Indiana, that’s continuing to build success.
“We all want to see each other win, we all want to succeed,” freshman pitcher Brayden Risedorph said on Sunday. He gave Indiana four solid innings to start Wednesday evening versus the Bearcats, and was rock steady against Ohio on Sunday.
“We’re kind of leaning on each other, just growing as a team,” Risedorph continued. “When you see your teammate succeed out there, it feels like you’re out there winning too. It just makes us all feel good.”
It’s a process that starts in recruiting. Indiana doesn’t just recruit the arm, the bat, the glove or the speed that a player possesses. Mercer and company recruit the character, too. Now, multiple years of doing so has loaded Indiana with classes full of both potential and personalities that mesh. To be the player-led group the Hoosiers hope to be, you have to make sure you’re handing the keys to the right guys.
Mercer says you have to enjoy the nuances that teaching brings, coaching and holding a higher standard that creates discipline and leads successful lives. Coincidentally, it’s the aspect of his job that he finds the most fulfillment in.
“The light bulb moments and the success, seeing the joy on their faces and helping them to understand what the game requires, what life requires and all the good stuff with it,” Mercer said. “That’s probably the most enjoyable part about coaching those guys.”
There’s bumps and bruises to it all, but as Mercer continues to look on as his group figures things out, they’ve had their fair share of joyous, light bulb moments. As the regular season nears the homestretch, how many more Indiana experiences will be up to the discretion of the ones that Mercer has relied on all season long.
In Mercer’s own words, Indiana’s system isn’t broken. Why fix it?