Last winter, the Indiana baseball team came into preseason practice with all the confidence and none of the experience of a team looking to make a run to the College World Series. This past week, Baseball America named the Hoosiers No. 3 in its preseason rankings, behind Oregon State (No. 2) – who gave IU its fatal blow in Omaha last season - and Virginia (No. 1).
Mitigating high expectations on a team with two preseason All-Americans (Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis) and a surprise run to Omaha last season to follow up may be hard, head coach Tracy Smith said, but he added preparing for a national championship run is difficult when you haven't been there before.
"It's tough to talk about a national championship, but it's tough to talk about Omaha if you haven't been there," Smith said. "It's been a goal every single year, but it puts a little more concrete shield to it cause it's real. This group has said since the end of last year that we have some unfinished business to do, and that's kinda one of their goals at this point."
Preparing for this season, though, has been a much different task, Smith said. Dealing with the pressure from the Baseball America rankings and hopes from the bulk of IU's squad that returns from last year's run has been different, but he added that it's not something he tries to ignore.
"You try to minimize it as much as possible but still you've got to come out. You've got to execute, and you've got to play the game like always have," Smith said. "I think you're foolish if you sit there and say that you're not going to be dealing with it.
"Our biggest challenge is just trying to manage that but remind them what got us to last year; more importantly what got us playing the way we did last year, not necessarily the destination, but playing well every day."
Smith said he told his team during the offseason the coaching staff would hold the Hoosiers to whatever kind of team they wanted to be.
If it was just to be a .500 team, they would make sure they held them to those standards during practice.
On Travis's card, his goals were much higher.
Individual: national championship. Team: national championship. Culture: national championship.
"If you want to be a national champion, then what we say better match what we do every single day," Smith said.
Several of Smith's players echoed his sentiments, saying they've seen even more work all around, rather than either practicing nervous with the season-opener against Texas Tech just a week away.
Senior outfielder Casey Smith said he's seen nearly the entire team surpass strength gains that just a few players hit last season, with guys taking every at bat and play during practice like the game is on the line.
Schwarber said he knows every team is going to give the Hoosiers their best shot this season, so improvements in the weight room and on the field are a must.
"We're going to have everyone's best shot every weekend," he said. "That's got to make us lock in 10 times more. We're not going to let those games slip 1-0 like we did in Omaha. We're prepared to grind those out and get the ‘W'."
But sophomore pitcher Will Coursen-Carr said going to Omaha showed him that it takes more than just pure talent for postseason success. He said he hopes his team takes time to bond even more this season to get past the mark they set a year ago.
"I think we learned we are a very good team, but once you get to places like Omaha, it's more of a heart thing," he said. "We've got to bond as a team this year, and I think that'll get us over the hump."