Image credit: Indiana State SS Jordan Schaffer (Photo by Will Becque)
CARBONDALE, Ill. – Indiana State came into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament this week on the NCAA Tournament bubble, looking to secure its position as the week went on.
So far, it’s been a rousing success. After a win over Illinois State on Wednesday, it secured a big win over Southern Illinois on Friday by an 11-8 score thanks to a relentless offensive effort that saw the Sycamores score runs in seven of the nine innings.
Every Indiana State starting position player had either a hit or a run driven in. For a team like Indiana State, which is a capable offensive club but one not nearly as physical or prone to putting up runs in bunches as Southern Illinois, it was just what the doctor ordered to make sure the Sycamores stayed out in front as the Salukis made their inevitable runs.
“We knew we had to come in and be focused and ready up and down the lineup,” said Indiana State center fielder Sean Ross. “Everyone had to be game ready. It wasn’t just going to be a couple of guys. It had to be a full team effort.”
It started early, as in as early as it could possibly happen, with shortstop Jordan Schaffer hitting a home run on the first pitch of the game. That also served as the start of a performance that saw Schaffer right in the middle of everything.
He would go on to score four runs, and in the fifth, he added a second home run, another solo shot, which marked the first time in his life that he has accomplished that feat.
“First time in my life,” Schaffer said of the accomplishment. “That felt really good. They were both at pretty big times in the game, obviously to get us started, and the other was to tie the game.”
After the fifth inning, Indiana State trailed 5-4 despite scoring single runs in four of the first five frames, but it hit the gas pedal from there, scoring two in the sixth, two in the seventh and then three more in the ninth.
The hits that broke the Salukis’ back came in the sixth and seventh, with Ross and first baseman Brian Fuentes both collecting two-out run-scoring hits, combining to bring home three runs. And the three runs in the ninth looked particularly big when it was all said and done, as SIU’s J.T. Weber hit a two-run homer in the ninth to make what was an 11-6 game an 11-8 final.
Frankly, Indiana State beat Southern Illinois at its own game.
“I feel like we’re just finally getting back to some rhythm as a team, especially offensively,” Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs said.
Indiana State is on the brink of getting back to the postseason one way or another this week. If it wins its next two games, it will secure the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. But even if it doesn’t, it has a fairly compelling at-large case.
With the win over SIU, it moved up to 33 in the RPI, and though it has just a 4-7 record against teams in the RPI top 50, it has a 9-11 mark against the top 100. More often than not, that’s the resume of an at-large team.
The fact that Indiana State is in this position is no small thing. For one, it would be impressive for the Sycamores to get to back-to-back regionals. It would be the first time that has happened since 1986 and 1987. Being a team that can pop up every three or four years and put together a regional team is one thing. Being a team that can at least get in the discussion every year is something different, and that’s what Indiana State is working toward.
But also, it would be a huge accomplishment for this particular team because it’s almost a completely different team from the one that went to Nashville and made it to the regional final against host Vanderbilt two years ago.
“Those guys in 2019, the set a standard here, and once they left, there is still a few of us from that team, (and we want) to just carry over as much as possible what they set for us and we just want to pass it on to the new guys, the new guys in our lineup, what it means to wear Indiana State across your chest,” Schaffer said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that so far.”
This is an inexperienced team. At times, it has played like an inexperienced team, but here it is, making a run at exactly the time of year when you need a younger team to come together.
“I think the big thing is if you can pitch it and catch it, you can survive against a lot of clubs,” Hannahs said. “Where that can be a problem, all of the sudden if you get in a place like this, that’s when you start to worry.”
The Sycamores have thus far avoided the stage being a problem, but the biggest test this week will come Saturday as it takes on Dallas Baptist with a spot in the finals on the line. A win would accomplish a couple of things. Most importantly, it would make them the odds-on favorite to win the auto bid, effectively taking all the guesswork out of their postseason fate, but it’s also the type of win that can take a resume from the wrong side of the bubble to the good side of the bubble.
To get that win, it will have to go toe-to-toe with a physical Dallas Baptist lineup, but on Friday it proved that it could do so.