The IU softball team has lofty expectations this season behind first-year coach Shonda Stanton.
The Hoosiers have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and have had a losing streak in Big Ten play each season since 2013. For Stanton, the team that Michelle Gardner left her is an experienced one.
"We have a strong core of seniors, I appreciate their leadership," Stanton said. "Any time there's change, you can either jump on board or you can slow the process down."
IU will lean on two time All-Big Ten performer senior outfielder, Rebecca Blitz, heavily this season. She has played every game in her career as a Hoosier and led the team in batting with an average of .333 and in hits with 54 as a junior. She sits sixth all-time in total career runs with 104 and fifth in stolen bases with 60.
The Hoosiers return their top four players in batting average with Blitz, senior infielder Taylor Udin, senior utility player Aimilia McDonough and sophomore utility player Gabbi Jenkins.
"It's really exciting because we know that we have the potential to do things big in the Big Ten and postseason," Blitz said. "We have so much experience and we're just learning so much from Coach Stanton that we can take to the next level and do well."
One of the main points of emphasis for Stanton this upcoming season will be base running.
When Stanton took over at Marshall in 2000, the Thundering Herd became known for their exceptional speed. No other team has earned more stolen bases since then and they were ranked top 10 in the country each year from 2009 to 2017.
"It's a mentality," Stanton said. "Regardless whether we feel we have top speed or not, we can bring that swagger to the table, we can bring that aggressiveness and you can't put a stat on that pressure you put on the defense."
Coming into the season, it'd be easy to point to hitting or base-running as possible key strengths for IU. But, the Hoosiers' tournament dreams rely on their pitching staff.
IU does not have a single freshman pitcher on the roster and will be led by senior Emily Kirk, junior Tara Trainer and sophomore Emily Goodin. Last season, the Hoosiers averaged a 3.91 ERA and gave up 380 hits.
The most important pitcher returning this season is not one that was on the field for 2017. Sophomore Josie Wood red-shirted this past season due to an injury, but as a freshman she led IU with 39 appearances, 13 wins and seven complete games.
"We'll have a really strong staff overall," Trainer said. "Our expectation is to just do our job and get as many good innings as we can."
The Hoosiers will have to play to their strengths to begin the season as they will face a 23-game road trip to start off. Up first will be the sixth straight year at the Kajikawa Classic on Feb. 8, in Tempe, Arizona.
IU will face fellow a Big Ten team in Northwestern and their biggest test will be No. 23 Arizona State to cap off the weekend.
Then, IU will play in the Big Ten/ACC Classic, Samford Tournament, Buffalo Wild Wings Classic and Oklahoma Tournament before visiting No.17 Kentucky. Their first home game will be against University of Illinois-Chicago on March 16, as part of the Hoosier Classic.
"You see what you're made of on the road," Stanton said. "You become road warriors. We want to win the day when we're traveling."
The Hoosiers will then have a midweek test against Louisville before Big Ten play begins on March 23, against Ohio State. One of the luxuries of IU’s schedule is that they will not have to play Minnesota this season. The Golden Gophers were 22-1 in conference play in 2017 and have won three of the past four Big Ten Tournaments.
Ohio State is the only Big Ten team on IU's schedule that will begin the season receiving any votes in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll.
This season will not be easy for the Hoosiers behind Stanton. But, the combination of veteran players and a rejuvenated program should make for an improved one.
"This is a special place, that's what excited me about coming here," Stanton said. "I felt like it was a sleeping giant that just needed to be woken up."
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