Indiana State baseball coach Mitch Hannahs is used to hitting the road this week, usually on his way to Wichita.
Instead, he can eat and sleep at home and welcome the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference to Warn Field. The conference tournament is at Indiana State for the first time since 1982 and the timing is perfect for the Sycamores to show off its stadium upgrades for an upgraded MVC.
“The oddest thing is feeling like we should have been on a bus Sunday instead of sitting here in Terre Haute,” Hannahs said.
Indiana State is one of two MVC teams with a solid NCAA at-large resume, so solid the school bid to host one of 16 NCAA regionals. The Valley is wrapping up a strong season that places it No. 6 nationally in the power rankings (RPI) compiled by warrennolan.com. Five of the MVC’s eight schools are in the top 100, led by No. 18 Indiana State and No. 33 Dallas Baptist. MVC champion Evansville likely slipped outside of at-large consideration at No. 59, followed by Wichita State at No. 81 and Illinois State at No. 93.
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“We’re in a good position, but we need to do well in this tournament,” Dallas Baptist coach Dan Heefner said. “You’d like to take all doubt away and win the tournament.”
As is usually the case, the MVC’s rise is connected to good starting pitching.
Evansville junior Kyle Freeland, the MVC’s Pitcher of the Year, is projected as a first-round draft pick and the MVC pitching wealth doesn’t stop with him. Wichita State’s A.J. Ladwig ranks third nationally with a 1.11 ERA. Major-league scouts will be on hand this week to watch those two, in addition to Illinois State’s Dan Savas, Sam Coonrod of Southern Illinois and others.
“You don’t ever face a weekend starter that’s not a pro prospect,” Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the offenses, because you know the game is going to be low-scoring.”
WSU coach Todd Butler is making his way through the MVC for the first time after spending most of his career as an assistant in the SEC.
“The pitching is impressive, with a guy like Freeland as a first-rounder,” Butler said. “It’s a higher (level of play) than I expected. Fundamentally sound, good defense and pitchers that throw strikes.”
Dallas Baptist is also new to the MVC and Heefner is happy to try to play his way in. In 2009, the Patriots ended the regular season with an RPI around No. 36. Then an independent, the Patriots watched while other schools played in tournaments and the NCAA selection committee discarded them.
“You just love the situation where you get to control it yourself,” he said. “It’s up to us to win the games. It’s another thing that you can build your resume with.”
Dallas Baptist’s addition as a baseball-only member turned out to be a life-saver when Creighton departed for the Big East. While Creighton’s loss is blow, Dallas Baptist’s ability to schedule strong opponents in Texas and Oklahoma offers strength-of-schedule opportunities that Creighton can’t match. Dallas Baptist played TCU, Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma this season on its way to compiling a strength of schedule ranked No. 78. Four MVC schools rank in the top 100, led by WSU at No. 51 and Missouri State at No. 67.
“Tremendous addition,” Bradley coach Elvis Dominguez said. “Losing Creighton and adding them was an even fit for the league.”
So far, the big winner is Indiana State, which can improve its regional resume at home against several good RPI opponents. Indiana State, which quaified for the College World Series in 1986, got serious about baseball again when athletic director Ron Prettyman arrived in 2005. The investment first paid off with an NCAA regional berth in 2012. The school renovated its press box, added seats to reach a capacity of 2,000 to complete an overhaul of Warn Field. Senior associate athletic director John Sherman said he thinks the stadium is adequate to host a regional.
“All the stars lined up for us,” Sherman said. “We had a good season. Hosting this tournament is a big coup for us, since it’s been 32 years. Our hope was always to be able to host a regional.”