Baseball success up North


LITTLE ROCK — Before Paul Eells found his calling behind a microphone, he fancied himself behind home plate for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

On one of those long trips back from Fayetteville, he talked about his freshman year, how practicing baseball indoors comes with certain limits, and the anticipation of leaving the snow in Ames for the warmth of Arizona. His tales provided context when Indiana coach Tracy Smith expounded on his team becoming the first from the Big Ten to reach the College world Series since Michigan in 1984.

After the Hoosiers completed a sweep of No. 7 seed Florida State in Tallahassee, Smith said, “People don’t understand what Northern schools have to go through to get to this point.”

Before taking a closer look at the Hoosiers, a wrap-up of Eells’ short-lived career as a catcher.

He said he had some trouble overthrowing the pitcher, laughing when he added that the target was a 6-foot-7 basketball player who doubled up as a pitcher.

Eells left the bullpen for the radio booth shortly after that Arizona trip. Iowa’s catcher was injured in the second game of a double-header and, instead of waving in Eells, the coach ordered the third baseman to strap on the “Tools of Ignorance.” Message heard, loud and clear.

Indiana advancing to the College World Series was the biggest shocker of the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament, even more surprising than Vanderbilt failing to get through the Super Regional. The Commodores, 51-9 and winner of a record 26 Southeastern Conference games, were so close to the No. 1 seed that the chairman of the selection committee said he wasn’t sure he could articulate the determining factor.

Vanderbilt was 0-2 against Louisville which raises the question whether any men’s program in the country is on a better roll than the Cardinals with the NCAA basketball title and a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida.

On paper, Indiana is well rounded — sixth in the country in ERA and No. 21 in batting average, but those stats are reviewed with skepticism because Big Ten baseball is considered inferior to that in the SEC, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and other leagues. The Hoosiers appear to be more about team than stars. Their best pitcher wasn’t taken until the fifth round of the major league draft and their all-conference third baseman went three rounds later.

Indiana opens the CWS against Louisville. Wonder how many times we will hear about two schools with oodles of basketball tradition squaring off in baseball?

Of the top eight seeds, only three are still playing. Vanderbilt, Cal State-Fullerton, Virginia, and Florida State were eliminated at home in the Super Regionals. Playing in Eugene, Oregon lost in the Regional.

From the mighty SEC, only two of nine participants will be in Omaha. One is Mississippi State, third in the Western Division behind LSU and Arkansas. Starting with eight teams, the top-ranked ACC also has two in the CWS.

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In an era when athletes transfer regularly in pursuit of playing time, Oklahoma pitcher Michelle Gascoigne is a throwback to be appreciated.

Tuning in to the second game of the best of three between the Sooners and Tennessee in the finals of the Women’s College World Series, I learned that ever since the OU senior has been in Norman, she has been a distant No. 2 to Keilani Ricketts, two-time national player of the year.

“People do tell me that I could be the top pitcher somewhere else, but I believe I’m here for a reason and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said in early March.

The night after Ricketts threw a career-high 12 innings and improved to 35-1 with a victory over Tennessee, Gascoigne got the start in game two. She struck out 12, allowed three singles, and walked none when OU won the title.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.