ST. JOHN | Lake Central is used to finding itself somewhere high on the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association polls to start the season.
That distinction has put the proverbial target on the Indians' backs that they're used to every season.
This one was different. It wasn't just the IHSBCA that noticed. USA Today and ESPNHS were ranking Lake Central, too. It was a senior-laden team with a pair of Division I pitchers that were 1A and 1B, but which was A and which was B changed daily.
Coach Jeff Sandor didn't want his team to put too much stock in the hype. A dry, sarcastic attitude that downplayed every jump in the rankings and every big win was meant to keep his 19 varsity baseball players grounded.
"We gave him a lot of crap this year about the things he'd say to us," pitcher Jimmy McNamara said. "He told us a lot that the other team was better than us."
The Indians plowed through the regular season at a brisk clip. They won six games by 10 or more runs. The only stumble was a 4-3 loss to Chesterton and MLB-drafted pitcher Jake Post.
When they beat Indianapolis Cathedral 7-1 on May 12, the players had a pretty good idea that every time Sandor told them the other team was better, he wasn't so sure of it himself.
"Now that we're through the year, we look at it, do you see what we've done, just let us be better than them," McNamara said.
"We'd be running poles, saying 'is he serious?'" pitcher Taylor Lehnert said.
Lake Central forced extra innings in the semistate to earn a trip to the state finals, where the Indians beat Roncalli 1-0 to prove the pundits right and secure their spot in the top 10 nationally. Subsequently, Sandor was named the Times Coach of the Year.
"When you wear a bull's-eye of No. 1, that becomes every other coach's motivating force. It got to a point where, 'let's relish in this,'" said Sandor, who is 78-12 in three seasons as Indians coach. "If they want to name us No. 1, great. Let's be No. 1 at the end, too. Let's be the best team in the state, and if we're the best team, that means we have to practice like the best team and play like the best team and work harder since we're the best team, and I think those guys did it."
The introduction of the BBCOR bat made for an obstacle that the Indians were quick to overcome. A traditional high-powered offense, Lake Central adjusted, using small-ball techniques to bunt, sacrifice, find the single and move base runners.
Though the number of team home runs dropped from 43 to 17, the number of sacrifice hits ballooned from 21 to 33 this season.
"There's something to be said for our guys adjusting," Sandor said. "You think of that when you look at the pitching that we saw when we got into the tournament, six Division I pitchers in seven games."
The Indians graduate eight seniors, six starters, including Lehnert, McNamara and power hitter Chase Fieldhouse. In the offseason, Sandor, who was the freshman coach when the Class of 2012 was in its first high school season, insisted that players try to find their own summer travel teams instead of playing on a single team together.
That doesn't mean he hasn't already started evaluating what talent the Indians have available for next season.
"We play 20 games with our guys in the summer, but we also let them play their 35 games with their travel teams, and it allows them to find their own niche," Sandor said. "We don't create a summer team for something that's going to make our program better. We use it as an evaluation tool. We want to see how they respond to coaching, how they handle being on base and running bases.
"For us, (summer) is a huge evaluation tool. It gives us points of emphasis for the offseason and points of emphasis for individual players."