Leistikow: Another successful year for Heller's Hawkeyes, but the fun's not done
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As two more Hawkeyes crossed home plate Friday night, “We Like to Party” by the Vengaboys blared over the PA system at Banks Field. The fans, who had packed into the stands, clapped enthusiastically in chorus.
The catchy dance tune from 1999 has been marking runs at home all season for Rick Heller’s boys.
Symbolically speaking, it’s served as a fun and fitting choice for the Iowa baseball program. Because five years into the Heller era, the beat goes on … and the party keeps rolling.
Since Heller arrived, the Hawkeyes are 5-for-5 at achieving 30-win seasons and Big Ten Conference Tournament appearances. ("Really big for our program," Heller acknowledged — not that either achievement is the final goal around here anymore.)
But still, those figures continue to provide evidence that the Hawkeye baseball program is in great hands.
A glance into the stands on a gorgeous Friday night, in which more than 1,500 fans came to support the Hawkeyes, served as a reminder that — whether Iowa is chosen for an NCAA regional or not — program momentum is ongoing.
“It feels good. It’s been a lot of hard work to get the program where the fans would come out,” said Heller, who signed a contract extension this winter to remain as Iowa's coach through the 2024 season. “But quite frankly, they did a really nice job even in Year One coming out and supporting us.
“I knew the Hawk fans would come support us if we did a good job, played hard, played good baseball. … and, as you guys know, if the weather’s nice.”
The latter part has been the only inconsistent aspect of Iowa’s rebuild.
Friday’s eventual 9-1 win against visiting Penn State pushed Iowa’s record to 32-18 overall, 12-9 in the Big Ten. That gave Iowa 142 victories since 2015, the winningest four-year stretch in program history — topping the 140 wins from 2014 to 2017, also under Heller.
In the 23 years prior to Heller’s arrival, no Hawkeye team had won more than 32 games.
In his five years, Iowa has (so far) averaged 34.2.
This story gets written in some version every year — that the Hawkeyes under Heller continue to chart new program waters. But that’s because such sustained success here, especially in this sport in a northern climate, is difficult to achieve.
And it’s worth recognizing.
Behind wrestling, baseball (which accounts for the school’s only Big Ten championship, men or women, in the last three years) is certainly in the conversation as the most consistently successful program in the Iowa athletics department.
Certainly, the Hawkeyes hope more wins are on deck at next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
To be sure they can make an NCAA regional for the third time in four years, they might have to win the whole thing — just like they did last year. (Iowa entered this series with an RPI of 64 and probably needed to be closer to 50 to garner an at-large appearance.)
“We’re going in defending our title. We have the utmost confidence that we will be able to do that," said leadoff man Chris Whelan, last year's Big Ten Tournament MVP. "We’re not really afraid of anybody in this league. I think we can repeat, for sure.”
Why so confident?
Heller typically has Iowa peaking at this time of year. His Hawkeyes in 2016 won five straight down the stretch just to make the Big Ten Tournament, then rolled into the Sunday title game before falling one win short of an NCAA regional.
Then last year, they won four times in five days to capture the Big Ten title and automatic NCAA bid.
But until late this week, Heller saw his team getting tight down the stretch — perhaps stung by damaging back-to-back losses a week ago at Northwestern.
They had to rally from a four-run deficit to scrape past woeful Western Illinois on Tuesday; then grinded out a 3-1 win Thursday vs. last-in-the-Big-Ten Penn State.
So, Heller sat them down Friday and delivered a message.
“Here’s the deal,” he told his players. “Whether we win the (College) World Series or get knocked out next week, we don’t have much time to play together. So, let’s enjoy it. Let’s have fun.
“Just go out and play hard, play selflessly. Take out all of the things that you would do for yourself — stats, all-conference, the draft — all those things that can cloud (your) head.”
Have fun. And go win.
That’s the one-week "Hellerball" missive.
The Big Ten Tournament begins Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, where more than 10,000 Hawkeye fans poured in to see the 2016 championship game.
With Nebraska not qualifying for this year’s tournament, Iowa is the de facto home team in Omaha.
And with that in mind, Heller had one more message to deliver:
“Let’s fill that place up with Hawk fans.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.