Sun rays peek through overcast clouds just enough to illuminate Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall’s far west side. A silhouette of a person sitting inside an office space is discernible only by a golden hue that outlines a seated body.
It’s 9 a.m. and IU softball Coach Shonda Stanton is wide awake, reading scouting reports and meeting with assistants.
Back in June 2017 when IU Director of Athletics Fred Glass hired Stanton to be the ninth head coach in program history, he referred to her as “a winner known for her recruiting acumen, strong player development and commitment to graduating confident young women.”
Everywhere Stanton has gone, she’s been a winner. She won 560 games during her 18 seasons at Marshall University, making her the program’s winningest coach. She led the Thundering Herd to 12 30-plus-win seasons and was named 2017 Conference USA Coach of the Year.
When Stanton promised to bring IU softball to new heights both nationally and in the Big Ten in her introductory press conference, she meant it. But it wouldn’t be that simple.
Prior to Stanton’s arrival, IU was rarely more than a middling program mired in years of mediocrity. While teams like Michigan and Minnesota – winners of 14 of the 21 Big Ten championships – have run amok in the conference for years, IU has never won a Big Ten championship. The Hoosiers have just four NCAA Tournament appearances in program history.
Something had to change because the already sparse softball fanbase was growing restless watching a bevy of promising seasons usually end the same: In disappointment.
In 2009, it felt as if the program had a breakthrough hire with ex-Head Coach Michelle Gardner. Her first five years in Bloomington resulted in a 108-153 record, but that would not be enough to give the Hoosiers the national respect they longed for.
While the win totals were underwhelming, Gardner’s ability to recruit top-tier talent was paying dividends. Players like junior infielders Bella Norton and Katie Lacefield, junior outfielder Gabbi Jenkins, and senior infielder Sarah Galovich have all seen notable improvements each year since being recruited to IU by Gardner.
Gardner’s biggest recruit didn’t set foot on campus until 2016. Senior pitcher Tara Trainer was the 2015 Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, a two-time MaxPreps All-American and the owner of a 0.32 earned run average her senior year at Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Ohio.
“Coach Gardner stuck with me the whole time, even through my car crash injury,” Trainer said. “Indiana was the best fit for me academically and athletically.”
The right-hander could’ve played for any of the high-profile coaches that recruited her, but she chose Gardner. More importantly, she chose to be a Hoosier. Trainer has already collected first team All-Big Ten honors in 2018 and multiple Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors throughout her college career.
“She’s been pretty much lights out,” Gardner said in 2016. “She’s just a little bulldog.”
Gardner saw Trainer begin to grow into a dominant pitcher at IU, but another disappointing season in 2017 led her to resign.
IU softball was left coachless, and it couldn’t afford another underachieving hire.
In stepped Stanton.
“I had already been coaching for 18 years at that point,” Stanton said. “I could’ve stopped and called it a career if I wanted to, but the timing was right and I was hungrier to win.”
Sophomore infielder Grayson Radcliffe has known Stanton and her assistants since she was 13 years old, when they first recruited her to play at Marshall.
“They’re trying to grow you as people, not just softball players,” Radcliffe said. “They invest their time in you and want to make you a better person.”
Like most overhauled athletic programs, adjusting to the coaching change was a demanding challenge for the players and the staff. That showed through the win-loss totals as the team went 26-30 in Stanton’s first season at the helm.
But the current winning streak to start Stanton’s second season has given IU fans a new sense of optimism.
IU opened the 2019 season in Boca Raton, Florida, by competing in the First Pitch Classic at Florida Atlantic University. The Hoosiers dominated their opponents by a combined score of 26-3 through the first four games.
IU’s fifth and final game of the weekend was against then-No. 6 ranked University of Georgia. The Hoosiers weren’t supposed to win this game, but they defeated the Bulldogs 6-4.
“No one expected us to go out and beat Georgia,” Radcliffe said. “Coach kept preaching ‘yes to possibilities.’ Anything can happen.”
The Georgia victory felt monumental, like a final changing of the guard for a success-deprived IU program. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from that game wasn’t the victory itself, but the “yes to possibilities” mantra that has since taken on a life of its own.
“I wanted them to play with no limits, no expectations.” Stanton said.
Stanton has continued to use that slogan throughout IU’s record-breaking 14-0 start. A pair of résumé -building wins against Loyola University Chicago and a gutsy, come-from-behind victory over Mercer University show this IU team keeps finding ways to win.
As Stanton sits inside her office, she can’t help but envision bigger things for this team. She said she wants wristbands with the motto branded on them. She said her team needs to celebrate wins and accomplishments. She said she is proud of Team 46.
Lastly, she said anyone who questions this IU softball team should already know the answer they’ll get in return.
“Yes to possibilities," Stanton said. "Y2P.”