Indiana opened the 2020 season as the defending Big Ten baseball champion. It will retain that title for the start of the 2021 season, though not through ideal circumstances.
The Hoosiers' first chance at a repeat title was cut short this month when the NCAA announced that the rest of the spring-sport seasons had been canceled in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Hoosiers, paced by a former Bishop Dwenger player, finished 9-6, including victories over No. 11 LSU and No. 17 East Carolina.
They will have to wait for next season to get another shot at winning back-to-back Big Ten titles.
“That's life,” second-year head coach Jeff Mercer said of the cancellations. “There are situations you can't control and things don't come to pass that you wish would have. What we have to do now is we have to learn from what were able to do and apply it to where we're trying to go.
“We weren't necessarily the most talented team in college baseball – we had some really good players – but we were a great team. ... We had some really good moments, we had some moments where we struggled, but overall the 'who' is so much more important than the 'what' and who we were was terrific.”
One of the “very good players” Mercer mentioned was undoubtedly outfielder Grant Richardson, who was having one of the better years at the plate in all of college baseball when the season was canceled.
Richardson, who played three seasons of high school baseball at Bishop Dwenger before transferring to Fishers, was a freshman All-American in 2019 and was on his way to an even better follow-up performance. He was hitting .424, with a .453 on-base percentage and .797 slugging percentage when the season ended. He had a team-high five home runs and 17 RBI.
He ended the year 11th nationally in total bases, 12th in slugging and 19th in RBI; it was a potential Big Ten Player of the Year campaign that was cut short. Only a sophomore, however, Richardson will have another chance to win the award next season before he is eligible for the MLB Draft.
“I'm fully confident that Grant will continue his trajectory and come back better and have another great season next year,” Mercer said. “We're excited, he's a dynamic young player, he's a very hard worker, he's a great – a great – teammate. His main concern has always been, 'How can I help the club be the best that they can be and I'll have my success along the way.'
“That's how successful players operate and we're able to watch him become a great player right in front of our eyes.”
Although Richardson will almost certainly be back next season – barring a transfer or other unforeseen circumstance – the same cannot be said for Indiana's seniors. The Hoosiers have a relatively young team, but they still had six seniors who combined to make 43 appearances in the starting lineup this season and worked out of the bullpen 12 times.
The NCAA has indicated that it will provide some relief for spring-sport athletes who had their senior seasons cut short, but it is still unclear what form that relief will take. The NCAA's Division I Council will vote Monday on whether to provide an extra year of eligibility to players affected by the cancellation of this season. NCAA Division II, Division III, the NAIA and the NJCAA have already voted to do so.
Mercer said he is in favor of an extra year of eligibility, even if it means some roster chaos with which coaches will have to contend.
“My personal opinion ... is that I would like to see all of the athletes receive an additional year of eligibility,” Mercer said. “I realize the ramifications. That makes it a very difficult process, and there are unintended consequences ... that carry on four or five years into the future. But I just have a really hard time ... it just wasn't that long ago I was playing, and to think about one of my years of eligibility taken away on something that was completely out of everyone's control, obviously. And, understandably, they made the right decision (to cancel the rest of the season).
“But to not have that year of eligibility restored, when it could be, would be really difficult to endure. You just only get so many years to play sports and the vast majority of our players are not going to make their living playing professional baseball.”
As those details are sorted out, Mercer and his coaching staff are in wait-and-see mode when it comes to recruiting because it's unclear how many roster spots will be available.
For current players, Mercer is developing individualized improvement regimens and is awaiting NCAA guidance on what types of virtual practice activities will be allowed in what is now an extended offseason.
The IU coach believes he has a leg up, however, because he has a roster full of self-motivated players.
“We're very fortunate, motivation isn't necessarily a concern (with our players),” Mercer said. “The boys understand the expectations and their expectations for themselves are gonna be what drives them. ... When I walk in the door every day, my job is not to give a Knute Rockne speech and to fire everybody up. ... My job is to come in and outline the plan, what we're going to do today to achieve the goals that we have.
“I don't worry about those guys wanting to work. That's how they were raised, that's how they were brought up and that's the expectation.”