Indiana baseball certainly isn't easing into its 123rd season in program history.
The Hoosiers begin a four-game road trip today in Surprise, Arizona, where they'll play Gonzaga (Friday and Sunday), Duke (Saturday) and No. 7 Oregon State (Monday).
The three opponents join next weekend's three-game series against Florida Atlantic to make up a stretch of seven straight games against teams that finished the 2016 season ranked No. 46 or better in the RPI. The Hoosiers will go on to play 10 more contests against reigning RPI Top-50 programs the rest of the year and 19 games against returning NCAA Tournament ballclubs.
"We're tired of playing each other," IU head coach Chris Lemonis said Monday. "We've been playing each other since September. We're excited to get out to Arizona, and I think it's going to be an exciting season. This first week will be a lot of competition and everything going on. We've set up our schedule to play some of the nation's best. That will really help us."
Playing a top-heavy schedule doesn't come without its share of risks. Indiana was reminded of that a year ago.
The 2016 Hoosiers began the year 1-6 and struggled to climb out of the hole they dug themselves into. They didn't reach the .500 mark beyond the first weekend until March 20, and by then there was too much ground to make up to become NCAA Tournament eligible.
Lemonis has an experienced lineup headlined by senior outfielder Craig Dedlow and junior outfielder Logan Sowers but a young, inexperienced pitching staff to balance out the veteran hitting. IU can ill afford a slow start, and the returning players who went through last season know it.
"You always want to start off the season well and get your confidence up," said Sowers, who reports he's healthy after missing some time last year with a wrist injury. "Last year, our first game we played really well (in a 14-4 win over Middle Tennessee). After that I don't know if we got a sense of false confidence that we did win by so much our first game, but just keeping that level head and not getting to high, not getting too low and just playing well (is key)."
Indiana will immediately be tested by some of the nation's best in Arizona, which was by design. It's not uncommon for northern teams like IU to head down to warmer climates for extended road trips at this point in the season to play teams used to playing throughout the year outdoors.
Fortunately, for the Hoosiers, a recent streak of warm weather has allowed for a few outdoor practices. That's meant live-action scrimmages over at Bart Kaufman Field to prepare for non-conference games.
"This is my fourth year, and this is the most we've been outside all spring leading up to the season," Dedelow said. "Especially for Logan and I and the rest of the outfielders, just being able to read the balls off the bat and not being in Mellencamp (Pavilion) and hitting into the ceiling and only going so far has just been a big part for us."
Indiana will toss sophomore right-hander Jonathan Stiever against Gonzaga on Friday to face righty Eli Morgan in the first action of the year. Sophomore southpaw Tim Herrin will get Duke's Mitch Stallings on Saturday, freshman lefty Andrew Saalfrank will face Gonzaga right-hander Daniel Bies on Sunday before IU righty Brian Hobbie goes up against an Oregon State pitcher yet to be named Monday afternoon.
The Hoosiers' youth in their starting pitchers is a theme that'll follow the club throughout the season.
“After losing a lot of the veteran guys that I have been with for the past three years leading up to this year, you’re seeing a lot of the same qualities that the Kelzers and Harts had,” Dedelow said of IU’s young arms. “Just a lot of composure and confidence in their stuff, and I think that’s only going to grow as the year goes on.”
Lemonis said Indiana's team motto this year is "start to finish," implying that the program needs to play well from the get-go all the way to the end if it wants to make an NCAA Tournament run.
Last year's team played well in the middle of the year but started slow and fizzled late.
The first step to following through with the motto is clicking off some wins in Arizona this weekend.
"You have to challenge yourself," Lemonis said. "You have to play good teams on the road. We just have to make sure as a group were progressing. We’re developing, we’re getting better. We want our wins, but we’re getting better as we play. That’s always going to be a challenge when you go out on the road the first couple of weeks."