Hawkeyes hoping to get head start on 2018 with Taiwan trip

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ask any Hawkeye about what fueled 2017’s regional run, and one international venture is always mentioned. Iowa’s trip to the Dominican Republic last November was an overwhelming positive in multiple areas, helping strengthen on-field cohesiveness and off-the-field chemistry.

Rick Heller hopes this year’s foreign excursion does the same.

The Hawkeyes hope this year's foreign trip to Taiwan for the World University Games is as beneficial as last season's trip to the Dominican Republic was.

The Hawkeyes began their trek to Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday for the World University Games, where Iowa will represent the United States against international competition.

Iowa is scheduled to face Mexico (Aug. 20), Russia (Aug. 22) and Japan (Aug. 23) in round-robin play, with the top two squads in each eight-team pool advancing to the semifinals. A championship game will then be played, along with a third-place game.

Iowa’s departure culminates a hectic, but productive summer full of preparation — one that’s delivered some obstacles but has given the Hawkeyes an advantage over essentially every other college program.

Despite a handful of injuries and a team-wide bout with the flu that left some players unavailable at times, Heller has already been able to weave in his newcomers with the returning core in game settings. Iowa played six contests leading up to Taiwan — three home games against summer league teams and three games in Wichita, Kan., as part of the NBC World Series.

The Hawkeyes went 3-3, but more importantly got a jumpstart on reconstructing what hopes to be another postseason squad. Those efforts continue with the two-week Taiwan trip.

“The great thing about it is that we’ve had a lot of our new guys here most of July training,” Heller said, “so we’ve got a huge head start on what a normal fall would be. I just look at this as, No. 1, a great life experience for our players. I think they’ll all grow and mature years on this trip.”

Heller said the biggest stressor this summer has been finalizing the Taiwan roster, which is limited to just 22 players.

Health had a hand in the difficulty — Heller said pitchers Elijah Wood, Nick Nelsen and Derek Lieurance won’t be making the trip after suffering injuries — and the Hawkeyes also won’t be able to take professional players who graduated this year like they had hoped. Roster decisions were being made “as late as last Friday.”

The excitement, though, has been bubbling since last August, when the World University Games first reached out to gauge Iowa's interest.

Other schools were also contacted, but the Hawkeyes were selected, in part, because the games thought it’d be nice to have a Big Ten school participating in the sport's competition — as is the case in men’s basketball (Purdue) and women’s basketball (Maryland).

Intrigued by the chance to represent the United States on a global stage, Heller took the idea to Iowa's administration and hashed out the financial requirements. An official announcement came in early October.

“It’s pretty amazing,” outfielder Robert Neustrom said. “You’ve got to pinch yourself sometimes because it feels like yesterday we were in the Dominican, and now we’re heading to Taiwan for two weeks. It’s unbelievable. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and I know a lot of these guys will never forget either. So we’re all just really excited.”

Although the games won’t be as meaningful as, say, a regular-season contest or a weekend series, the team expects to face quality competition in Taiwan. That will bode well for pitchers like Kole Kampen and Nick Allgeyer, two hurlers working their way back from Tommy John surgery.

“I think it’s going to be very beneficial to me,” said Allgeyer, who made his first appearance since surgery in Iowa’s final exhibition game last Thursday. “If we didn’t have this opportunity, my first time coming back and getting my feet wet (in an actual game) would be in a regular-season game. This is obviously a huge opportunity and means a ton.”

It could mean even more come Opening Day 2018.

“I know it’s going to help these core group of players bond and become better teammates and become closer knit, a lot like we did last year with the Dominican trip,” Heller said. “I know it’s going to pay big dividends when we start our season in February.”

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.