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Indiana defies odds by reaching College World Series

(MCT) — Sam Travis felt all along this would be a good Indiana baseball team.

That became even clearer early in the season, when the Hoosiers took two of three games at Florida, the second starting an 18-game winning streak. They would go on to win the school's first Big Ten regular-season title since 1949 and add their third conference tournament crown in that event's 34-year history.

Yet the landmark season seemed to be heading toward disappointment when Indiana trailed Valparaiso 4-1 with one out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth in the opener of the double-elimination NCAA regional.

"That was an unbelievable experience," Travis said.

No other word better describes the Hoosiers' four-run rally that ended with Chad Clark's two-run, walk-off home run _ his only homer in 189 at-bats this season.

And Travis justifiably used the word again to describe what has followed, with the Hoosiers becoming the school's first College World Series qualifier and the Big Ten's first since Michigan in 1984.

Indiana (48-14), No. 12 in the final regular-season rankings, opens CWS play at 7 p.m. CDT on Saturday against No. 16 Louisville (51-12), a team the Hoosiers have beaten twice in three games this season.

No. 5 Oregon State and No. 10 Mississippi State also are on Indiana's side of the eight-team, double-elimination bracket. The winners of each side meet in a best-of-three for the title.

"It is every college baseball player's dream to make it to Omaha," Travis said, "but now that we are here, we don't want to stop winning."

Travis, a sophomore first baseman from Providence, is among seven Chicago-area players on the Hoosiers. The Tribune's high school player of the year in 2011, he accumulated impressive accolades and put up big numbers in his first two college seasons:

Big Ten freshman of the year and freshman All-America in 2012, when he started all but one of the team's 60 games and batted .319 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs.

Most Outstanding Player this year at both the Big Ten and NCAA regional tournaments, with four home runs and 16 RBIs in nine postseason games. For the season, starting every game, Travis has a .313 average and is second on a hard-hitting team in homers (10) and RBIs (56) despite a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, which has necessitated taking little or no batting practice.

"I have definitely matured a lot as a player," he said.

Travis overcame a rocky defensive start at Indiana, helped by coach Tracy Smith's decision to switch him to first base after he made nine errors in 15 games at third, his high school position.

"I just went back to having fun," Travis said. "I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself as a freshman."

Smith kept Travis in the lineup for his bat while he got comfortable at the new position. Similar patience has allowed Smith to turn around a program that finished last in the Big Ten four of the six seasons before he took over and during his first two (2006 and '07) as head coach.

Under Smith, who spent three years (1988-90) on Cubs Class A teams, the Hoosiers have made two of their three NCAA appearances. He was the pitching coach for Indiana's other NCAA qualifier (1996).

Barring player losses to the pros, next year's team could be even stronger because this one has only two senior regulars.

"The book on Indiana always has been Indiana can swing the bat," Smith said. "We have pitched consistently this year. The one thing we still need to do is play better defense."

Getting to Omaha will make this a special Father's Day for Smith. His son, Casey, a redshirt junior, is a utility infielder for the Hoosiers with a .309 average.

"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't the coolest thing ever for me," Smith said.

He also could call it unbelievable.

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