Jan. 31, 2012
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -
2011: A Record-Setting Season For the Hoosiers
About this time last season, the Indiana University Softball team was gearing up for its first official practice of the season and there was plenty of reason for optimism. Not only did the team have talented and experienced upperclassmen returning in Sara Olson and Kelsey Stander but also there was an infusion of young talent eager to step onto the stage and play Big Ten softball.
Add to that the addition of Morgan Melloh, who transferred to Indiana for her senior season after spending the previous three seasons at Fresno State, and expectations were through the roof. Melloh was a game-changing left-handed pitcher from Fishers, Ind., and wanted to be closer to home for her final season so her parents and family could watch her pitch. The coaching staff and players knew what Melloh was capable of, as she is one of four pitcher to record 450 or more strikeouts in her first two seasons in college, joining Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and Angelica Selden. She had been named an All-American as a freshman and led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in each of her three seasons so she was used to pitching in big games with the pressure squarely on her shoulders. That experience would be something that the Hoosiers needed if they were going to make postseason play for the first time since 2006. She also wrote her named squarely at the top of the Big Ten and Indiana single-season record books, setting new marks for strikeouts in both with 494. And her 1,532 career strikeouts puts her in ninth place all-time on the NCAA Career Strikeouts list and among the best to ever play the game.
The season started out playing some of the toughest teams in the country and the Hoosiers were not backing down. Although they may have let a couple games get away, they were in each and every game until the final out with chances to win games that they might not have had in years past. After all of the close calls over the first month of the season, the Hoosiers finally put those experiences to use when they defeated Michigan...on the road...in extra innings. Those are all things that had not happened in quite some time for IU softball so that gave fans reason to believe that the 2011 team was something truly special. And then as they put together a 14-game win streak in Big Ten play, it became clear that this team was taking IU Softball to levels it had not seen in years. The team finished the season with a 37-18 overall record and 16-2 in the Big Ten. The 37 wins were the most since 1996 and the second place finish in the Big Ten is the best finish since IU won the 1994 Big Ten title.
So let the journey begin.
The schedule that third-year head coach Michelle Gardner put in front of the Hoosiers did not allow the team to ease into anything with the season opener against No. 2 Arizona at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. Melloh would face one of the other top pitchers in the country in the form of Kenzie Fowler for the Wildcats. Both pitchers went the distance in the circle and both registered 12 strikeouts but a trio of IU errors late in the game allowed the Wildcats to come away with a 4-0 victory. Despite the loss, the team saw that Melloh was going to keep them in any game against any team and all they had to do was supply the offense and she would take care of the rest. The next day saw the Hoosiers take on Nevada, the program that Coach Gardner built from scratch into an NCAA Tournament team before coming to Indiana. The Hoosiers jumped out early on the Wolfpack and went on to claim a 10-2 victory in five innings. Following a win against Cal Poly the same day, IU lost a pair of close games to Texas Tech and No. 12 California to round out the opening weekend. Although they left with a 2-3 record, the groundwork had been laid for the rest of the season and the Hoosiers knew they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.
The next tournament on the schedule sent the Hoosiers south to Clearwater, Fla., for the USF Tournament. Looking to improve upon a promising start at the previous tournament, IU opened the weekend by trouncing UAB, 8-2, and then dropped close contests to DePaul and Fordham. The team regrouped and came out swinging against USF, pounding out 14 hits on their way to a 5-1 victory while Melloh allowed just two hits in the game and continued to throw the ball extremely well each time she took the mound. In the finale of the tournament in Clearwater, Indiana needed a victory to get to .500 on the year and Ole Miss was standing in the way. The Rebels were a scrappy team but a key 2-run triple from Meaghan Murphy lifted Indiana to the 7-3 win and a 5-5 overall record.
From there, the Hoosiers returned to the West Coast for the Cathedral City Classic, one of the top pre-season tournaments each season, and this year was no different. The opener for the Hoosiers was against one of the top offensive teams in the country in No. 4 Florida. Melloh did what she could to hold off the hot-hitting Gators but in the end the Hoosiers lost, 7-0, despite 14 strikeouts from Melloh. Later that same day, the Hoosiers earned a thrilling walk-off win against San Diego State to keep the confidence at a high. The confidence carried into the next day when IU took on No. 14 California and one of the best pitchers in the country - Jolene Henderson. The teams were tied 1-1 after seven innings so the international tiebreaker was used to help determine the winner. As the visiting team, Indiana scored a pair of runs in the top of the eighth inning but the Golden Bears clawed back to score a pair of runs in their half to tie the game at 3-3. Then in the bottom of the ninth inning, Cal was able to plate the winning run and take a 4-3 decision but it was yet another example that the Hoosiers saw they could compete with one of the best teams in the country for seven innings and beyond. The Hoosiers would go on to win the final two games in Palm Springs, Calif., and finish the weekend with a 3-2 record and a 8-7 record overall.
The zigzag travel across the country led the Hoosiers to the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., with five games scheduled. IU opened the weekend with a 2-0 victory over a solid Chattanooga team on Friday and looked forward to their next game later that day against No. 1 Georgia. The Bulldogs came in with a potent lineup and strong pitching but with the Hoosiers brimming with confidence, it was sure to be another battle to the end. Georgia scored a run in the first inning and a run in the second inning of Melloh but that's all they would be able to muster for the game. And the IU bats struggled to put anything together, matching the Bulldogs with three hits in the game, but were not able to plate a run and lost 2-0. That night, Mother Nature stepped in and heavy rain washed out all the games on Saturday - including a rematch against the top-ranked Bulldogs that the Hoosiers were looking forward to. So on Sunday, Indiana got the chance to close out another successful weekend against James Madison. Morgan Melloh recorded her sixth game of the season with at least 10 strikeouts and the offense came alive in the middle innings to lift the Hoosiers to a 5-1 win thanks to a home run from Sara Olson, her third of the season.
The final weekend on the road in the pre-season schedule took the Hoosiers to Norman, Okla., and the campus of the University of Oklahoma for the Oklahoma Spring Festival with the Sooners, Missouri State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. After suffering a disappointing 3-2 loss to Missouri State in extra innings to start the weekend, IU had to regroup to take on No. 10 Oklahoma. The Sooners came out firing from the start and handed Indiana a 9-0 loss in five innings. With the games being setup in a round robin format, the Hoosiers were not able to get a second chance at the Sooners by virtue of their two losses on the first day. So that meant the Hoosiers were going to play a double-header against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Sunday. Judging by the 18-0 score in five innings, it's safe to say that the Hoosiers let out a little aggression against UAPB. Seven different IU players had two hits in the game with home runs coming from Olson and freshman Meaghan Murphy, with Murphy's clearing the seats in left field for her first collegiate home run. Olson finished the game with four RBI while Murphy and Nelson both tallied three RBI. Murphy also pitched all five innings in her first career start to get the shutout and the win. The 18 runs were the most scored by the Hoosiers since 1986. In the second game, Sara Olson picked up the win in the circle as IU cruised to a 4-1 triumph and a 12-10 overall record with two more games to play in the state of Oklahoma.
After the final game on Sunday, the Hoosiers drove to Oklahoma City and saw the Oklahoma City memorial at the site where the Oklahoma City bombing took place. It was an experience that all the players, coaches and staff will remember thanks to the park rangers that explained everything to the group. The group took pictures and wrote notes with "sidewalk chalk" outside the gift shop to those that were lost in the tragedy.
A fun little two-hour bus ride to Tulsa was next as the Hoosiers prepared for games against Tulsa and Northern Iowa. UNI broke open a close game in the late innings and the Hoosiers lost 5-1 to the Panthers. Later that night, Olson clubbed her fifth home run of the season but it was not enough in a 3-2 loss to the Golden Hurricane. After all the travel across the country, it was easy to see why the Hoosiers were looking forward to the returning to Bloomington the following weekend for the Hoosier Classic.
Finally playing at home for the first time, the Hoosiers were anxious to show the home crowd what all the excitement was about. Morgan Melloh was dominant in the circle over the first three games against Central Michigan, Loyola and Eastern Michigan, not allowing a run and leading the Hoosiers to a 3-0 record. In the finale of the Classic, Wright State finally dented the scoreboard with a trio of runs but the Hoosier bats were up to the task and completed the weekend sweep with a 6-3 win.
A midweek doubleheader sweep of the Butler Bulldogs gave the Hoosiers come close-game experience that would come in handy later in the year as they entered Big Ten play.
To open conference action, the Hoosiers welcomed the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the IU Softball Field on a cold, windy weekend in Bloomington. The Gophers stole game one of the two-game series behind solid pitching and just enough hitting. Indiana came back the next day and won 4-2 behind an eight-hit attack and 12 strikeouts from Melloh.
So the Hoosiers would take a 1-1 Big Ten record into Ann Arbor, a place that had been a "house of horror's" so to speak over the previous 15 years. The Hoosiers had not defeated the Wolverines at any venue since 1996 - a span of 35 games. And Indiana had not won in Ann Arbor since 1993. Couple that with the fact that Michigan was ranked No. 3 in the country, it did not look promising for the Hoosiers on paper. Thankfully the games are played on the dirt and not paper. When the team arrived in Ann Arbor on Friday night, the weather forecast for the weekend was not favorable so the coaches and administrators from both teams got together and decided that they would wait until Saturday morning to decide whether or not to play a doubleheader on Saturday or keep the schedule the same and play one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Just before the team is getting ready to get on the bus and go to the stadium, the decision is made that it will be a doubleheader on Saturday. The weather was not the greatest on Saturday, with high winds and little to no sunshine but it wasn't raining so the games went on.
In game one, Morgan Melloh and UM's Jordan Taylor - two of the premier pitchers in the country - dueled all game long before the Michigan bats provided a pair of runs that proved to be enough in a 2-1 loss for the Hoosiers. Despite the loss, the Hoosiers knew that they could hang with Michigan and they set out to make sure game two had a different outcome. The senior leader of the team, Sara Olson, did her part and then some, to make sure that the script went a differently than the previous 35 games. She hit a two-run single in the top of the first inning off Stephanie Speierman to give the Hoosiers the early lead. With the game tied in the top of the sixth inning, Jordan Taylor came on in relief and was greeted by a towering home run off Olson's bat to center field to give IU a 4-2 lead. But Michigan battled back again to tie it in the bottom of the seventh inning and force extra innings. In the eighth inning, again it was Olson at the plate against Taylor in the circle. And once again it was Olson that came out on top, crushing a line drive solo home run down the left field line to put IU on top 5-4. Michigan was not able to get anything going against Melloh in the bottom of the eighth and the Hoosiers earned the split. It was a career-high five RBI for Olson and the Hoosiers had their first win in 35 games against the Wolverines. The team danced and cheered in the outfield after the game like they never had before because it was a team win that everyone played a part in and one of those special days that every person in the program will remember for years to come.
Indiana traveled down I-65 to play Louisville in a midweek non-conference tussle and the Cardinals squeezed out the 1-0 win on a seventh inning walk-off single. A tough loss for the Hoosiers but not one that would affect their ultimate goal of a Big Ten title. They returned to work on that goal the next weekend with a pair of road games against Penn State. The Nittany Lions were playing their first conference games in their brand new stadium and everyone was in a festive mood. Another pitching duel ensued in the first game before IU pushed across three runs in the top of the eighth inning to get the win. Then in game two on Sunday, IU scored one run on a single in the seventh inning by Amanda Wagner but it was enough support and Melloh kept the Nittany Lions at bay to pick up the 1-0 win. The victory improved the Hoosiers to 22-15 overall and 4-2 in conference action, the best start to a conference schedule for IU since 1997.
A Wednesday doubleheader against Ohio State saw the Hoosiers rack up two more victories and sweep the Buckeyes for the first time since 1997. On Thursday, the Indiana State Sycamores came to town and left with a 5-2 loss to the Hoosiers thanks to three-run home run by Samantha Berenter. All of a sudden, Indiana was on a five-game winning streak with Wisconsin coming to Bloomington for two games.
The Badgers were a scrappy group that came in with confidence but Morgan Melloh quickly ended that as she struck out 21 in the game, two shy of matching the IU single-game record. Wisconsin was able find a way to put three runs on the board and it wasn't until a single by Sara Olson and an error in left field in the eighth inning that the Hoosiers were able come away with the win. On Sunday there were more dramatics, as the Hoosiers trailed 3-2 going to the bottom of the seventh inning. But the bases were loaded for power-hitting Amanda Wagner, who had been on a tear of late. She brought the crowd to its feet with a grand slam to left field that left little doubt as soon as it left the bat.
A midweek non-conference win over Ball State pushed the overall winning streak to eight games and Melloh became the Indiana single-season strikeout leader with 14 in the game to give her 375 on the year, passing Amy Unterbrink's 370 strikeouts during the 1986 season.
If the conference winning streak, which was at seven, was going to be put to the test, it would be over the next four games on the road. But the resilient Hoosiers responded with two convincing wins at Michigan State and followed that up with an 8-0 trouncing in game one at Illinois. In game two against the Fighting Illini, IU had a number of opportunities to break the game wide open but could not convert. Eventually they plated three runs and Melloh made those stand up in the 3-1 win to set a new school record with 11 straight Big Ten wins.
With the pressure building from the outside as the win streak reached 12 games overall, Indiana came back to the IU Softball Field for two games against Iowa, who was not at the top of the Big Ten standings. It would be games like this that the Hoosiers needed to stay focused on the task and not let any distractions in. And that they were able to do, collecting 3-1 and 5-0 wins over the Hawkeyes to run the streak to 14 games and keep the pressure on Michigan atop the Big Ten standings.
With the season winding down and it was becoming clear that it was a two-horse race for the Big Ten crown - the Hoosiers and Wolverines. With that added incentive, Indiana made the drive north to Evanston to battle the perennial power Northwestern. The Wildcats were not having the strong season in the Big Ten that everyone was used to so the opportunity was there to keep the streak alive. In game one, the Hoosiers snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Wildcats with a 1-0 win on an RBI triple by Ashley Warrum in the third inning. The victory also gave Indiana the longest winning streak in the country at the time - 15 games. The game on Sunday was senior day for a strong senior class of Wildcats and they were not going to go out with a loss in their final home game. The clawed their way to four runs and the IU bats could not get going and the streak came to an end by the score of 4-1. With disappointment in the air immediately following the loss, and the possibility of letting a Big Ten title slip away, head coach Michelle Gardner rallied the team for the final two regular season games of the season at home against arch-rival Purdue.
The Boilermakers too were scuffling a bit entering the final weekend of the season and were looking to keep the Hoosiers down. But Indiana was bound and determined to not let that happen and they used three Purdue errors in the fifth inning to plate the two runs they needed to get the win, 2-1. On Senior Day for the three seniors on the IU squad - Morgan Melloh, Kelsey Stander and Sara Olson, all three played a part in the win. Stander had a pair of infield hits; Olson drew a walk and scored a run while Melloh went the distance in the circle to get the win, her 32nd of the season, as IU shutout the Boilers, 4-0.
Indiana finished second in the Big Ten, one game behind Michigan; it's best finish in the Big Ten since winning the title in 1994.
From there, all eyes turned to the NCAA Tournament, with Indiana a lock to make the postseason for the first time since 2006. When the draw was announced, the Hoosiers were sent to Colombia, Mo., along with DePaul, Illinois State and the host, Missouri.
In game one of the tournament, the Hoosiers took on DePaul, which was a rematch of a meeting earlier in the year that DePaul won, 7-3, in Florida. The two teams were very evenly matched and it would come down to who would make the fewest mistakes. In the second inning, Indiana got the board when Morgan Melloh slid safely into home plate on slow roller in front of the plate to give IU a 1-0 lead. An error allowed the Blue Demons to tie the game in the bottom of the third inning. From there, Melloh and DePaul starting pitcher Lindsey Dean took control. In the seventh inning, with runners at second and third for DePaul, the pitch from Melloh skipped off the top of the catcher's glove and went to the backstop to allow the go-ahead run to score. IU was not able to put together enough of a rally in the bottom of the frame and dropped into the loser's bracket to take on the loser between Illinois State and No. 5 Missouri.
In their second game at the regional, Indiana took on a strong Illinois State team out of the Missouri Valley Conference. IU took the early 1-0 lead in the first inning on a RBI groundout by Sara Olson, her 95th career RBI - the sixth-most in IU history. But in the second inning, the Redbirds tied it up on Abby Olson's solo home run. ISU's Olson struck once again in the fifth inning with a two-run double down the left field line that gave the Redbirds all they needed to go on and claim the 3-1 victory and end the Hoosiers season at 37-18 overall.
It was a disappointing way to end the season because the Hoosiers had leads in both games of the regional but were not able to hang on - which was something that had been a staple of the team all season whenever they got a lead. And while the season ended, it marks only the beginning of the return of IU Softball to the top of the Big Ten and back on the national stage.
Morgan Melloh - Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, First Team All-Big Ten, Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Midwest Region First Team, Four-Time Big Ten Pitcher of the Week
Sara Olson - First Team All-Big Ten (First Base), Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Midwest Region First Team, Big Ten Sportsmanship nominee, Outstanding Sportsmanship Award from the Big Ten, Capital One Academic All-District V First Team, Spirit of Indiana Directors Award, Big Ten Player of the Week (April 4)
Amanda Wagner - Second Team All-Big Ten
Jenna Abraham - Third Team All-Big Ten
MVP: Sara Olson and Morgan Melloh
Most Outstanding: Ashley Warrum and Breanna Saucedo
Pitcher of the Week: Morgan Melloh
Gold Glove: Cassie Gogreve
Most Improved: Amanda Wagner
Freshman of the Year: Jenna Abraham
Hoosier Award: Entire Team
Academic All-Big Ten
Big Ten Distinguished Scholars
Kelsey Brannon (4.0 GPA)
NFCA All-America Scholars
**Team GPA: 3.335 (30th nationally, 2nd in Big Ten)