May 31—When Indiana State's name popped up on the NCAA baseball selection show to play at Vanderbilt for the second time running, it no doubt like deja vu to Sycamore fans and ISU coach Mitch Hannahs.
The site may be the same as ISU's 2019 NCAA regional trip and the host Commodores are just as fearsome, but this isn't total recall in any other sense of the term.
That's because the Sycamores that are going to Nashville this year — and the players that helped ISU make back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986-87 (there was no tournament due to COVID-19 in 2020) — are much different than the one that played at Charles Hawkins Field in 2019.
Only one everyday starter — catcher Max Wright — remains from 2019. Tyler Grauer has a similar bullpen role that he did in 2019 — though he is more of a secondary closer than the primary one. Geremy Guerrero was a jack-of-all-trades reliever in 2019. Now he's the MVC Pitcher of the Year as ISU's ace. There are some players, such as Jordan Schaffer, who played in 2019, but not regularly.
So it's a different team. And it's an accomplishment all their own.
"Going into the season, there were a lot of unknowns from this group. The word from the committee we got back was that they had high regard for our nonconference schedule. Throwing these guys into that non-con right away? We learned a lot about them, that they wouldn't be fazed, they'd compete, and learned they had a gear that went a little higher. It's an entirely new team, we threw them to the wolves, and they responded," ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said.
ISU didn't have the automatic bid in 2021 as it did in 2019, so there was a small sense of anxiety, even though most experts had the Sycamores solidly in the field after a 3-2 performance at the MVC Tournament.
"It's exciting seeing our names called. There was a sense of wonder for us rather than 2019. We didn't know when, where or if, necessarily. We had a sense of wonderment, but then quickly, a sense of needing to get to work," Schaffer said.
What is similar to 2019 is the difficult task at-hand. The Nashville Regional is even tougher than it was in 2019.
ISU, the No. 3 seed at the regional, will open against Georgia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference at 1 p.m. on Friday. In 2019, ISU was a No. 2 seed and it opened against pesky McNeese State, a solid team, but one from the less heralded Southland Conference as opposed to the ACC.
And, of course, the host Commodores, who won the College World Series in 2019, are the big dogs. Vanderbilt is seeded No. 4 overall in the tournament and the Commodores will host Presbyterian in Friday's nightcap.
Georgia Tech (29-23) won the ACC's Coastal Division by a half-game over Miami. While the ACC only has one team hosting a regional (Notre Dame), the league was very balanced. The Yellowjackets won seven of their 12 ACC series.
This despite the fact that Georgia Tech had a team ERA of 5.82. Brant Hurter is the only starting pitcher with an ERA below four at 3.74.
However, the Yellowjackets hit well, with a team batting average of .283, third-best in the ACC and Georgia Tech led the ACC in runs scored with 366, including a league-high 119 doubles. Georgia Tech has no one among the ACC leaders in home runs, but catcher Kevin Parada led the league with 20 doubles. Shortstop Luke Waddell was among the ACC leaders in base hits with 66.
ISU (30-20) had a relatively successful MVC Tournament with a 3-2 record overall. On the good side was a revival of ISU's offense after it had slumped in its final two regular season series. ISU's pitching was also solid out of the expected sources. On the down side, ISU's defense — normally a strength, was haphazard at times, and ISU stranded a MVC Tournament record 20 runners in its championship round loss to Dallas Baptist.
"We obviously have to play better defensively. We have to take advantage of opportunties, which are more limited at a regional than they are at the MVC Tournament. If you get an opportunity in a game? You'd better take advantage," Hannahs noted.
As for the rest of the field, Vanderbilt (40-15) is its usual scary self. Highly-touted starting pitcher Kumar Rocker, who pitched against the Sycamores in 2019, is still there. Rocker's ERA is 2.86 and opponents are hitting .186 against him. Vandy's other main starter is Jack Leiter, who has a gaudy 2.28 ERA. Like ISU, the Commodores have turned over most of their everyday starting lineup since 2019, but still possess skill to burn, including Dominic Keegan (.369), Enrique Bradfield Jr. (.356), Isaiah Thomas (.331, 12 HR) and Carter Young (15 HR).
Presbyterian (22-21) were surprise winners of the Big South Conference Tournament. The Blue Hose beat No. 1 seed Campbell — who got a NCAA at-large bid — twice en-route to the Big South championship.
Guerrero is one of the few Sycamores who played at the 2019 regional. He pitched three innings over two games against Vanderbilt, relieving Zach Frey, also still on the roster, in the second contest against the Commodores.
"Experience goes a long way. Having that experience with some of our guys will help us control the moment and not let the moment control us," Guerrero said. "I think it's a good thing to have some guys without experience. They get to carry that experience with them going forward."
The winner of the Nashville Regional will be paired against the winner of the Greenville Regional, hosted by East Carolina. The host Pirates, Charlotte, Maryland and Norfolk State comprise that regional field.
Dallas Baptist earned the other MVC tournament bid as champions of the MVC Tournament. The Patriots will play in the nearby Fort Worth Regional against Oregon State at TCU.
Game 1 — No. 2 Georgia Tech (29-23) vs. No. 3 ISU (30-19), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 2 — No. 1 Vanderbilt (40-15) vs. No. 4 Presbyterian (22-21), 6 p.m. (SEC)
Game 3 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, Noon
Game 4 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 8 p.m.
Game 7* — Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 6 p.m.
* If necessary