Road To Omaha: Hoosier State Revival

Baseball isn't the first sport associated with the state of Indiana, but that may be changing. The college baseball programs in the Hoosier State are off to a strong start in 2013 and are poised to keep the state talking about more than just basketball in March and beyond.

March is a special time in Indiana. The basketball-crazed state has much to look forward to over the next three weeks with one of the nation's most celebrated high school basketball tournaments and the NCAA tournament, which in recent years has borne witness to two improbable runs to the Final Four by Butler and this year will feature the current Indiana University team, which is headed for a one-seed after ending a 20-year Big Ten championship drought.

But it is not only the basketball Hoosiers or the cagers of the prep ranks that are making headlines in Indiana this month. It is the baseball Hoosiers, along with the Fighting Irish, new stadiums and a top prospect in Terre Haute that has the baseball world fixated on Indiana.

In Baseball America's latest top-25, the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oregon each have two programs ranked. With a No. 17 ranking for Notre Dame and a No. 24 slotting for Indiana (the program's first-ever appearance in the Baseball America poll), the Hoosier State is stands side-by-side with the baseball hotbeds while outnumbering the ranked teams from the states of Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, home to some of college baseball's premier programs.

This week, Notre Dame (10-4) has traveled to Cal Poly (14-2) for a Thursday-Friday-Saturday series. The Mustangs are ranked No. 22 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll, and provide the Irish with a second consecutive weekend in California to show that the Irish are one of the best teams in the nation. Last week, in the Dodgertown Classic hosted by UCLA and Southern California, Notre Dame fell in 10 innings to No. 11 UCLA, 2-1, before defeating the Trojans, 2-1. Notre Dame then ended the weekend with a 6-5, 11-inning victory over No. 23 Oklahoma.

Propelling the Irish to their fifth-best start in the last 76 years are the strong performances of its three best players, juniors Eric Jagielo, Trey Mancini and Dan Slania.

Emerging as the Midwest's top collegiate bat for the draft, Jagielo entered the weekend carrying a .360 average, with two doubles and five home runs on his way to driving in 18 runs. First baseman Mancini has provided his corner infield counterpart with support in the heart of the lineup, sitting with a .333 average, 13 RBI and three home runs.

Already participants in five one-run games, reliever Slania has been vital in securing leads, or helping Mik Aoki's club win them late. Entering the fifth weekend of the season, Slania carries a 2-0 record with three saves in 13.1 innings that he has yet to allow a run.

In their third year under Aoki, Notre Dame seeks to end a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought. Predicted to finish third in the Big East by conference coaches, Notre Dame is out to return to the days when current LSU coach Paul Mainieri guided the Irish to three conference championships between 1999-2002, the final season capped with a trip to the College World Series.

Though Indiana's last regional appearance is more recent – 2009 – the Hoosiers do not have the history of the Irish. Only once has IU participated in the NCAA Tournament (1996). It has been 74 years since Indiana last claimed a Big Ten title. Instead of simply righting the ship, head coach Tracy Smith is set to man his program into uncharted waters.

Entering the season as the conference favorite in the eyes of Big Ten coaches, Indiana has received outstanding performances from its top players. Their early success this season is a sign that they are one of the nation's top teams.

While Indiana is currently on spring break, beating up on lesser foes such as Army, Fairfield and the United State Naval Academy, two of IU's 11 wins this season came in Gainesville. Last weekend, the Hoosier nine took two-of-three from Florida, an early-season road series win that is rare for a northern program.

Indiana may not be just another cold-weather club. Behind sophomore catcher Kyle Schwarber and classmate first baseman Sam Travis, Indiana's two- and three-hole batters project to be among the top collegiate bats for the 2014 draft. After 14 games, Schwarber is has a .435 average, .471 on-base percentage and .645 slugging percentage. Travis counters with a slash of .400/.529/.680. A year ago, the duo respectively posted OPSs of .903 and .906, combining for 32 doubles and 17 home runs.

In addition, red-shirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Aaron Slegers is an arm that has the potential to fly up draft boards this spring. An imposing figure at 6'10'', 250 pounds, Slegers entered the season with only 8.1 career innings under his belt. But after a fall scout day in which an area scout says Slegers looked like a supplement round pick, the tall righty has a 1.96 ERA in 18.1 innings, picking up 17 strikeouts against two walks.

The excitement around Indiana's program isn't limited to their 11-3 record or national rank. The team's March 20th home opener is set to be played in the newly constructed Bart Kaufman Field. Part of a $19.8 million dollar complex, Indiana will move into a sparkling 2,500-seat stadium after years of playing in one of the Big Ten's bottom-tier facilities.

Also set to open play in a brand new stadium is Indiana's Big Ten rivals to the northwest, Purdue. After ending a 103-year Big Ten championship drought, finishing with No. 23 in Baseball America's final 2012 poll, the Boilermakers will defend their title in the $11 million Alexander Field, which was complete in the fall.

If team's success or brand new stadiums are not enough of a reason why excitement this spring in Indiana will carry beyond basketball, how about possibility to being home to the nation's top MLB draft prospect?

Indiana State junior left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea has emerged as one of the draft's top prospects after a dominant summer season in the Cape Cod League. With 85 strikeouts and seven walks in 51.2 innings, a 1.21 ERA and only 21 hits allowed, Manaea started the Cape Cod all-star game and ended the summer season with Pitcher of the Year honors.

Scouts, cross-checkers, scouting directors and more will flock to see the 6'5'', 235-pound Manaea play this season. But as the Sycamores travel to Minnesota for a three-game series, Manaea will toe the rubber Friday against Gopher junior left-hander pitcher Tom Windle, a junior lefty in his own right that is a potential first-round pick. Windle already has a no-hitter under his belt this season, coming against Western Illinois. The two are expected to pitch in front of more than 100 representatives of professional organizations.

When the men's college basketball tournament bracket is announced Sunday, the state of Indiana will be on edge to see what paths to the Final Four await Butler, Indiana and Notre Dame. March Madness is around the corner, but not before dozens upon dozens of radar guns rise with every Manaea pitch on Friday, and its unexpected twists and turns may be nothing compared to the journey Hoosier state baseball teams are embarking on.

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