Indiana softball readies for ‘loaded’ Columbia Regional with eye on making history

BLOOMINGTON — Indiana softball was well prepared on Sunday when it earned a second straight NCAA tournament bid.

Coach Shonda Stanton busted out containers of bubbles for every player on the team as well as some bubble guns to celebrate reaching the Columbia Regional. It was the first time since 1985-86 the Hoosiers have reached the tournament in back-to-back seasons.

“We don't do it (celebrate) nearly enough,” Stanton said, in a phone interview with The Herald-Times. “The season goes by so fast when you are playing 60 games, you can’t catch your breath. We thought being a bubble team, the bubbles would be a good idea.”

More: Indiana softball earns NCAA tournament bid for second straight season

Stanton got some odd looks when she stopped at the Five Below in Terre Haute alongside the team’s director of operations Cassie Hendrix on the way home from the Big Ten tournament. They filled up a truck with bubbles while the team ate lunch.

“I felt like we had done enough to punch our ticket,” Stanton said.

Indiana’s Sophie Kleiman (28) talks to Avery Parker (18) in the pitching circle during the Big Ten softball tournament Friday, May 10, 2024 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Indiana’s Sophie Kleiman (28) talks to Avery Parker (18) in the pitching circle during the Big Ten softball tournament Friday, May 10, 2024 in Iowa City, Iowa.

‘Let’s chase 40’

Indiana had some work to do going into the Big Ten tournament after hitting some turbulence at midseason.

The Hoosiers went 22-4 during the non-conference portion of their schedule that includes a win over then No. 15 Oregon in their season-opener and road victory over a FAU team that reached the tournament.

They hit a roadblock at the start of conference play when they were swept in consecutive weekends by Penn State and Michigan.

The skid ended on April 5 with an extra-inning 6-2 win over Michigan State. Indiana opened the top of the eighth by putting six straight runners on base. Sarah Stone broke a 1-1 tie with a three-run home run, her second round-tripper of the game.

"Pivotal," Stanton said, of the win. "That's the turning point, one hundred percent."

Indiana went 17-7 in April, but went into the Big Ten tournament short of the 40-win goal Stanton laid out for the team before the season.

"We didn’t want to be a one-year flash in the pan,” Stanton said.

Indiana’s Aly VanBrandt (5) swings at a pitch in the Big Ten softball tournament Friday, May 10, 2024 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Indiana’s Aly VanBrandt (5) swings at a pitch in the Big Ten softball tournament Friday, May 10, 2024 in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hoosiers made a run in the Big Ten tournament finals similar to the one they made a year earlier. They sent Purdue home in the opening round, upset No. 1 seed Northwestern in the quarterfinals and made it out of the semifinals with a comeback win over Nebraska in extra-innings before falling 3-1 to Michigan in championship game.

While the NCAA tournament committee revealed IU was among the final four teams in the field of 64 during Sunday’s selection show, Stanton felt her team’s tournament run solidified its resume.

“I think the key was beating Nebraska,” Stanton said. “I felt like the winner of that game would make it. It sure would have been nice to make history in the Big Ten title game, but our kids played super strong."

It’s only the second time in program history the team had back-to-back seasons with 40 wins (1985-86).

‘This is a loaded regional’

Indiana spent the week preparing for a Columbia Regional featuring the No. 7 overall seed Missouri, future Big Ten member Washington and a Omaha team that won the Summit League Championship title for a second straight year.

The Hoosiers open the regional with a game against Washington at 3 p.m. on Friday.

“It's going to be fun having them in the Big Ten next year,” Stanton said. “It's a great preview of that. They didn't play well to end the season, so they are going to be hungry. This is a second shot for them, they are a team used to hosting. I'm sure they will be disappointed being on the road. They will have a chip on their shoulder."

Washington is making its 30th consecutive NCAA regionals appearance, but this is the first time they aren’t hosting since 2015. The Huskies lost four straight to end the season and six of their last seven.

Five of those losses were decided by one run.

Indiana will likely face Washington’s ace pitcher Ruby Meylan, who was one of eight players on the team to earn All-Pac 12 honors. Meylan earned a first team nod for a second straight year with a 2.35 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 119.1 innings pitched (19 starts).

“She throws 70-plus on the mound, she can be hard in, so that relative velocity can be pretty high,” Stanton said. “You got to be able to get your barrel on the ball, and be short with your swing.”

Stanton doesn’t expect the road to get any easier from there.

Omaha’s ace Kamryn Meyer, a fifth-year senior, might be one of the most dominant pitchers in the tournament. She had a 1.51 ERA in 189.2 innings pitched with a 25-4 record (18 complete games) and 239 strikeouts.

Missouri has three talented arms (Marissa McCann, Cierra Harrison and Laurin Krings) with some imposing bats at the top of the lineup (shortstop Jenna Laird and center fielder Alex Honnold). Honnold set a single-season program record with a .358 batting average.

“This isn't one of those regions where you got a four seed that had an AQ that didn't have a winning record,” Stanton said. “This is a loaded regional. We are honored to be playing in it."

Indiana will be looking to advance out of regionals for the first time since 1986. Stanton believes she has the group to do it.

"Last year, every time we did something, it was like look what we are doing, we are rewriting history and doing things that hadn't been done in 40 years,” Stanton said. “...This year things feel like more familiar territory.”

Columbia Regional schedule

Friday, May 17th

▶ Game 1 – Washington vs. Indiana – 3 PM (ET)

▶ Game 2 – Missouri vs. Omaha – 4:30 PM (ET)

Saturday, May 18th

▶ Game 3 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 – 3 PM (ET)

▶ Game 4 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 – 5:30 PM (ET)

▶ Game 5 – Winner Game 4 vs. Loser Game 3 – 8 PM (ET)

Sunday, May 19th

▶ Game 6 – Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5 – TBD

▶ Game 7 – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 – TBD (If Necessary)

Michael Niziolek is the Indiana beat reporter for The Bloomington Herald-Times. You can follow him on X @michaelniziolek and read all his coverage by clicking here.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana softball ready to burst some bubbles in NCAA tournament