After beginning the season 7-21, the IU softball team needed a way to forget the nonconference misfortunes and get ready for the gauntlet of the Big Ten Conference. IU Coach Shonda Stanton came up with a way to make all those negative reminders go up in smoke.
She asked her team to write down on small pieces of paper all the negative things that happened in nonconference play, including statistics, and then she set them on fire. This signified the beginning of a new season and that everything that happened to them before didn’t matter.
Her team responded the following weekend when IU played No. 18 Ohio State in the conference opening series in Bloomington. The Buckeyes had no answer for anything the Hoosiers threw their way. After a 6-0 shutout in game one, IU went on to sweep Ohio State behind 9-3 and 4-1 victories to complete the series.
“It was exciting because after the preseason you want to get out to a fast start, and we did that,” Stanton said. “It gave us the confidence that we could compete with anyone in the Big Ten.”
From there on out, the Hoosiers have looked like a different team than the one that was one loss away from the worst start in program history. Stanton credits her team’s ability to take things one pitch at a time and focus on the little things, rather than worrying about the big picture.
It took some adjustments, but Stanton was able to get her team playing the way she’s been preaching all season long.
“In the past, we didn’t have that fight, and I think that goes back to Coach Stanton," senior outfielder Rebecca Blitz said. "All the little things that she’s ingrained in us throughout the year, building the culture."
After dropping the series to Nebraska, the Hoosiers bounced back with sweeps against Maryland, Penn State and Purdue. In the eight games, the Hoosiers outscored all three teams by a combined 50-10. IU made headlines across the conference for its performance.
The opportunity for a Big Ten regular season title was very much alive.
That was until No. 14 Michigan came to Bloomington on the weekend of April 27. It was one of the most important series in IU program history.
In game one, IU took an early 1-0 lead, but Michigan responded with a 5-1 victory. But thanks to senior infielder Taylor Uden, the Hoosiers stole game two to tie the series after she hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
It set up game three, which would keep the winner on a clear path to the Big Ten regular season title. Unfortunately, it was the Uden sister on the Michigan roster, sophomore infielder Madison Uden, who brought in the winning runs for the Wolverines in the top of the ninth with a double to center field.
Despite losing the series, the Hoosiers still felt confident they sent a message to the rest of the league.
“We show up and expect to win,” Blitz said. “We know that we can play with anyone and that’s showed in the Big Ten.”
Despite dropping a series to Rutgers at the end of the season, IU clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a first-round bye with a 17-6 conference record. It wasn’t the ideal start to Stanton's first season as the head coach, but the turnaround in conference play has her team clicking at the right time and prepared for a deep postseason run.
“I think that the Michigan weekend more so than the Ohio State weekend gave us the belief that we can win this whole thing,” Stanton said. “I think we’ve done a great job of preparing this past month, and I really believe our student-athletes are ready. I’m excited for us to go to battle.”