Leistikow: Heller's Hawkeyes assemble a season to appreciate

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Veteran coach Rick Heller has done it again.

For the fourth straight season — no matter what happens the next few weeks — Iowa baseball is a success.

As is his nature, Heller is quick to deflect the credit.

“I would tell you,” he said Tuesday, “it starts with the team’s make-up — their team chemistry.”

Iowa head coach Rick Heller chats with players as they head to the dugout during the Hawkeyes' game against Loras College at Duane Banks Field on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

In the four years since taking over a crumbling program with 15 losing seasons out of 17, Heller is 4-for-4 — in other words, a 1.000 batting average.

Year 1: A successful rebuild.

Year 2: A dream season that ended in Iowa’s first NCAA Regional appearance since 1990.

Year 3: A stirring run into the Big Ten Conference title game.

Year 4: Some of Heller’s best work yet.

Robert Neustrom (44) and his Hawkeye teammates look toward the fence as his eventual 446-foot home run sent Iowa to an 11-10 win against Ohio State on Sunday.

A team that had its offense gutted by graduation and its pitching staff decimated by arm troubles was 31-18 entering Tuesday night’s home finale vs. Omaha.

This is Iowa’s fourth straight 30-win season — a first at the school since 1979-85.

With Sunday’s walk-off win vs. Ohio State, the Hawkeyes clinched their fourth straight trip to the Big Ten Tournament — a school record.

“I’m as proud of this team,” Heller said, “as any I’ve ever coached.”

To put that into perspective, this is Heller’s 30th year at the helm of a college baseball program. He’s previously taken Northern Iowa and Indiana State to the NCAA Tournament — no small feat for a Midwest program.

How has this Hawkeye team done it?

There’s not one blanket answer, so let us count the ways.

Junior Jake Adams, an 11th-hour roster addition after the program he was supposed to attend folded, is far and away the Big Ten leader in home runs (19), RBIs (57), slugging percentage (.708) and total bases (138). Since college baseball introduced BBCOR bats in 2011, no Big Ten player has hit more home runs in a season than Adams — not even former Indiana slugger Kyle Schwarber.

“In my opinion,” Heller said, “he is the league’s MVP.”

Junior Nick Gallagher (7-1, 2.33 ERA) has given Iowa the top-of-the-rotation dominance it needed after last year’s No. 1, C.J. Eldred, was lost for the season after one start with Tommy John surgery.

Lefty Ryan Erickson, who wasn’t initially planning to return for his fifth year, has become a reliable No. 2 starter (2-3, 3.30 ERA) to help offset Tommy John surgeries to two other possible starters in Nick Allgeyer and Kole Kampen.

Senior Mason McCoy, another guy whose return was in question, is hitting .332 and, per Heller, is “one of the top four or five defensive shortstops in the country.”

Iowa centerfielder Ben Norman waits for a pitch during the Hawkeyes' game against Loras College at Duane Banks Field on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

Newcomers Tyler Cropley at catcher and Ben Norman in center field, along with Mitchell Boe at second base, has cemented Heller’s annually-strong, up-the-middle defense.

Heller also points to a November team trip to the Dominican Republic as building important camaraderie. That's hard to measure, but it's fact that the Hawkeyes are 10-4 in one-run games.

“They don’t ever quit," Heller said. "They don’t ever give up."

The overall result: a program that continues to pick up steam, rather than lose it.

“That was my big concern — that we didn’t take a step backwards this year,” Heller said. “Because we had a ton of excuses.”

At No. 96 in the RPI, Iowa doesn’t have the resume it’ll need to get an at-large spot in the NCAA Regional. Having just six games against the RPI Top 50 hurt; Iowa didn't draw Michigan (RPI 31) or Indiana (RPI 34) on this year's Big Ten schedule.

But who knows? Maybe another new first under Heller is on the horizon.

If they can sweep a three-game set at Illinois this weekend, the Hawkeyes (at 13-8 in conference play) have an outside shot at a Big Ten regular-season title.

Next week, it’s the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington, Ind. Like in college hoops, the winner of the eight-team bracket gets an automatic bid to baseball’s Big Dance.

So the season’s far from over.

But it’s already another undisputed Heller success.

“For this team to have a great season and play well every day, I think, really has established us as one of the better programs … in the Midwest,” Heller said. “It’s a program that’s still on the rise. Obviously, we’re not where we want to be. But doing the things that we’ve done … says a lot about where our program is.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.