LEXINGTON – The last time Indiana was in this position, things around head coach Jeff Mercer’s program were much different.
The Hoosiers had just come off of a 2019 Big Ten regular season title, sporting a 36-19 record and entering in the annual conference tournament with the No. 1 seed attached to their name. Having come over from Wright State, Mercer was named the conference’s coach of the year in his first season in Bloomington. An eventual NCAA Tournament berth would be on the way, and the Hoosiers had the talent to compete on a national level.
However, the rest of the season would not be representative of the work put in to get to that point.
Losses to Iowa and Minnesota bounced Indiana from the conference tournament in Omaha, Neb. in the span of 24 hours.
A two-seed in the Louisville regional a week later, the season came to a controversial conclusion at the hands of the eventual College World Series participant Cardinals. Indiana had gone from the top of the Big Ten’s mountain to an unsatisfied finish in the blink of an eye.
Four seasons later, Indiana is a new-look squad that’s eager to pave their own path. Turning around a 27-win season a year ago, the Hoosiers’ 41 wins are already a strong foundation to build off of. There isn’t a single player on this season’s active roster with NCAA experience during their time in Bloomington, and the amount of pedigree from transfers is slim as well.
A journey back to this point culminated inside the Spirit of ‘76 Club inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, where the Hoosiers gathered and celebrated their selection into the NCAA tournament. The reaction was business-like – the Hoosiers had plenty of reason to believe they would be postseason participants. But there they were, listed with No. 12 overall seed Kentucky, West Virginia and Ball State in the Lexington regional.
“We’ve been working hard as a team to get back to the tournament,” outfielder Bobby Whalen said. “To see our name pop up, we finally did it, and now it’s time to go compete.”
Whalen did signify that the moment was surreal, and Mercer felt the same. Just because it was expected doesn’t mean it isn’t monumental.
“For most of the guys, this is their first time going,” Mercer told reporters following the selection show. “For so long, you’re trying to explain to the guys what it’s like and the process and what you have to do to be able to go through it. Essentially last year, we kind of started with a whole new group and now growing those guys up.
“To have them to be able to now experience it and see it, to know the satisfaction that it brings as a player – I know how hard you work to get there. And now you have the satisfaction of getting to go it yourself, it’s just very rewarding.”
However, this season’s successes have been in the works years before it came together in this appearance – a three-seed in the Lexington regional, the 10th all-time entrance for the program in the NCAA tournament. The recruitment of prominent players that are key contributors to this run – Big Ten frosh of the year Devin Taylor and All-Freshman team member Tyler Cerny, leverage arms Brayden Risedorph, Connor Foley, Ethan Phillips and others – all have come since the 2019 run.
That’s not to mention the sophomore class that continued their run of excellence from a season ago, transfers who have come in and made an instant impact or the veterans who have made it their mission to experience this tournament before their college careers come to a close.
Indiana’s roster is full of players who believed in the process, the trajectory Mercer’s program was on and the work that was going to be required to get there. Now, with evidence to prove it, this season does just as much this season as it does for upcoming seasons.
“What I get excited about as a coach is they get to experience it firsthand and going into a big environment, play really good baseball and you’re gonna have a chance to go compete for a national championship,” Mercer said. “In the moderate-to-long term now, there’s so much that’s gained from being able to go and experience that next level.”
The Hoosiers have a tough regional ahead of them, but the work they’ve put into this point has earned them this opportunity – a chance to play against the best teams in the country for a national championship. There are no more days off, and the Hoosiers will be tested in consistent fashion unlike they have been all year.
Indiana has played playoff games for the final month of the season to solidify their positioning in this environment. Now, they’ll have an opportunity to experience the fruits of their labor.
The slate is clean and the Road to Omaha is a road unknown. Indiana is about to find out.
First pitch between No. 3 Indiana and No. 2 West Virginia is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday evening.