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February 15, 2013

Season of expectations

Best in the Big Ten? That's what the league coaches project for the Indiana Hoosier men's baseball team this year based on this week's annual preseason poll. Same goes for several media entities including Baseball America, Perfect Game and CollegeBaseballInsider.com.

Isn't this the Hoosier team that last April stood 16-21 after giving up 41 runs in two games to Louisville and Michigan State?

Well it's not exactly that same team thanks to a year of maturity and a huge freshman class. Some of that maturity gained from the hardships of 2012.

The famous Friedrich Nietzsche quote "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" certainly applied to Indiana following the 41 run debacle last season.

"I feel like the demeanor of our team changed when we came off the loss to Michigan State and got our butts kicked by Louisville," said catcher Kyle Schwarber this week at media day. "That was our all-time low. Once we hit that next weekend we started clicking. Our demeanor just changed because we knew we were better than what we were."

From that point forward the Hoosiers were 16-7 and finished runner-up in the Big Ten league standings and in the conference tournament. The latter a tension filled 6-5 loss to in-state rival Purdue that followed a marathon extra inning win earlier in the day over that same Michigan State team that humiliated the Hoosiers earlier in the league season.

"We weren't happy at the beginning of the year, that is for sure," said sophomore Sam Travis. "As the second half rolled around we turned it around. Our mentality going into every game was that we knew we were going to win. We could have been down seven in the seventh inning and we still had the mentality that we were going to win."

Coach Tracy Smith must absorb the losses of speedy second baseman Micah Johnson and pitcher Chad Martin, both picked in last June's MLB draft. Closer Jonny Hoffman also won't be back after a "violation of team standards."

"Pitching is not a huge concern of mine heading into the season," said Smith. "Ryan Halstead tied the freshman save record. Got beat out later in the year by Hoffman but we feel like we have one of the best closers in the conference coming back."

Known inside the program as "Skip," Smith is set to begin his eighth season as Hoosier coach today when Indiana kicks off the season against Louisville. He led Indiana to its second ever NCAA Tourney in 2009 but has never had to deal with preseason expectations like he has this winter. So he sought out the advice recently of a guy who knows a thing or two about that, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

"I thought it was interesting that he said the expectations that the media create is a little different than the everyday expectations of what's going on in practice and the desire to get better," said Smith.

Like Crean he has some guys that have been around the block now and maybe prepared to deal with the hype.

"We're more experienced, a veteran team, and we're all out there having fun," said Schwarber. "Like Skip said, this is the best couple of practices he's had since we've gone to the first game."

One of those veterans is pitcher Joey DeNato, a third team All-Big Ten selection after going 7-3 (3.22 ERA) as a sophomore last season. He'll get things rolling for Indiana today and each weekend series.

Last April as a sophomore DeNato set an Indiana conference record by striking out 12 Michigan batters.

"We all saw what he could do last year against Michigan," said Schwarber. "He's a very good leader on the mound. He has a presence out there."

A lefty, DeNato offered up some key reasons things turned around midseason last year.

"Our hitting definitely improved the second half of the season," said DeNato. "We had a young team at the time so it kind of took some adjusting in the beginning. Learn from your mistakes. We had seven out of nine that were starting at times that were freshmen. They figured it out fast and it worked out for us at the end of the season."

The rotation after DeNato will have to play itself out some.

"Right now we're going (Aaron Slegers) at number two," said Smith. "We're going to open the weekend with DeNato, Slegers and (Kyle) Hart. He (Slegers) is the wild card because he is unproven."

A wild card in more ways than one. Slegers is as big as they come for a pitcher. The righty is listed by Indiana as a 6-foot-10, 250-pound redshirt sophomore.

"If the draft were today, he would probably be a top five round draft pick," said Smith. "How funny is that given he's only thrown six innings in college? He's been pretty darn good in practice. He's been good in our intraquads. He's a 6-foot-11 strike thrower that has a tough plane. If he can come on and we can put Kyle Hart at number three, that would be pretty good."

Hart's a lefty and Smith said he'd like to rotate between righties and lefties during each series.

"Nothing is set in that rotation, there will be some guys nipping at the heels of these guys," said Smith. "We have the most pitching depth probably since we've been here."

Recruiting brought that depth.

"We brought in a class of 15 freshmen and most of them are pitchers," said Schwarber. "The competitiveness we have right is going to be real good for the team.  We don't have a Saturday-Sunday or midweek spot set yet, so that competition is going to give us an edge."

"We have a very deep pitching staff," said DeNato. "Some of the guys that showed some success in the fall are (Brian) Korte, (Ryan) Halstead, (Aaron) Slegers, and freshmen Will Coursen-Carr, (Scott) Effross----I don't think there's a weak part of our pitching staff right now."

Coursen-Carr may be the most hyped among the newcomers to the staff. The 6-foot-4 lefty from Fort Wayne South was voted Mr. Baseball in Indiana after a 10-1 senior season that included 134 strikeouts, just 21 walks and a 0.40 ERA in 13 appearances.

Better fielding behind the pitchers is a must. Indiana made more errors than any league team a year ago.

"To me it was mental and it just really snowballed for us last year," said Smith. "I'll take responsibility for that. I've never seen errors at the number we were making them last year."

"A bunch of us were nervous, we weren't set in some spots. Had so many switches and feel like we couldn't get comfortable," said Schwarber. "This year I feel like we're fine. We've set our infield. We've set what we need to do."

Several players spoke this week about the progress with defense this week, pointing out the improved statistics that the coaching staff recorded from fall and winter practice and intrasquad play.

"That's the key that we keep talking about with this team," said Smith. "Our pitching staff is good enough, we're going to score enough runs. If we take care of the baseball, this team has a chance to do some pretty special things."

Indiana should be one of the better hitting teams in the league. The Hoosiers were third last year in the Big Ten in home runs and fifth in batting average despite the slow start to the season. First baseman Sam Travis was named Freshman of the Year in 2012 after hitting .319 with nine home runs and 50 RBI. That latter was second in the league. Schwarber had an impressive frosh campaign as well at the plate, hitting .300 with had eight home runs with 47 RBI.

Both Travis and Schwarber along with DeNato were tabbed "Players to Watch" by the Big Ten coaches this week.

As far as the hitting lineup, Smith will again be a bit unconventional and put Schwarber in at the two spot. He'll follow senior center fielder Justin Cureton.

"Probably biggest two hole hitter in the country," said Smith who added that he likes to get his best guys as many potential chances to get to the plate.

"There's a lot of balance in our line up and there'll be some change but if you're starting tomorrow, you're going to have right-left, right-left, all the way down the line," said Smith.

After Schwarber the early season order according to Smith will be Travis, 3B Dustin DeMuth, SS Michael Basil, DH Scott Donley, 2B Chad Clark, OF Will Nolden and OF Chris Sujka.

That line-up will trot out tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Dunedin, Florida where Indiana will meet Louisville at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. The game is part of the three day Big Ten/Big East Challenge. On Saturday the Hoosiers face Connecticut and on Sunday meet South Florida.

The Louisville challenge tonight has been long anticipated given how the Cardinals handled Indiana last season and the No. 4 national ranking heaped on the Big East program.

"We asked the guys to identify the important goals for the season, and it wasn't coach led, but (beating Louisville) made it in our top lists," said Smith. "We play Louisville three times this year and let's face it, they've had our number quite a bit. One of the goals is to take a minimum of two out of three from Louisville."

"We can't wait to get out there, these last couple weeks have just been dragging," said Travis. "We know we're going up against a great opponent and soon as we get down there it will be all business. We're not going to hold anything back, going to go right after them."

Schwarber sounds even more ready to go tonight.

"This is going to be a big game, especially for me because I played with some of their guys over the summer," said Schwarber. "No. 4 team in the nation and everything but they handed it to us last year. Not too fond about that, having friends on the team makes it even more bittersweet."

Unlike basketball, the Big Ten doesn't always receive multiple bids for the NCAA tourney. Indiana's second place finish didn't yield a bid in 2012 as the Hoosiers slow first half worked against them.

"Your chances for the NCAA tournament are really defined in the next five weeks, before conference starts," said Smith.

Indiana won't open at home until March 20th when Miami-Ohio comes to Bloomington. By that time construction is expected to be far enough along on Bart Kaufman Field and Andy Mohr Field to allow the Hoosiers to open in their new stadium.

"We drive by it daily and can't help but stare at it," said DeNato. "It will create a great atmosphere."

"It's a big step, shows the athletic department feels we're going in the right direction," said Schwarber.

The team will no longer have to split time between Assembly Hall, Mellencamp Pavilion and Sembower Field.

"We're all pumped and can't wait to be walking out of our own locker room and be in our own dugout instead of walking out of our locker room and driving up to the field," said Travis. "We can't wait for that first game under the lights. But we've got a good 20 games before that first home game so we need to take care of business before then."

Only time will tell whether taking care of business will mean a Big Ten title and a return to the NCAA tournament. The lofty preseason projections won't make it happen.

"It's a compliment that we're picked where we are," said Smith. "If nothing else from where this program has been, it illustrates if nothing else that people have to take notice of us. But truth of matter is I knew we had a pretty decent team last year and the preseason polls had us ninth."

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