'Definition of a team': Hawkeyes' relentless grit continues program's upward movement

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

HOUSTON — To build a program into a perennial postseason contender, Rick Heller knows the construction can’t stall for long.

Iowa Hawkeyes catcher Tyler Cropley (5) celebrates with infielder Kyle Crowl (23) and first baseman Jake Adams (35) after scoring against the Houston Cougars Sunday, June 4, 2017 at Darryl and Lori Schroeder Park in Houston. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

Consistent regional appearances are a must to keep the momentum flowing, with the hope that eventually, an Omaha excursion materializes when everything falls perfectly into place. So after last year’s near miss following Iowa’s first NCAA Tournament berth in two-plus decades, Heller certainly didn’t want to see back-to-back postseason whiffs.

His Hawkeyes didn’t let it happen.

When dealt multiple early blows with a slew of key pitching injuries, the 2017 squad bounced right back and delivered a quality season that continues Iowa’s forward advancement after an extended stretch of baseball futility. These Hawkeyes produced the program’s first Big Ten Tournament title and fifth regional appearance, doing so with a lineup full of thump and a resilient pitching staff.

MORE: Leistikow: Heller's original Hawkeyes deserve piece of Big Ten title, too

“The definition of a team is these guys,” Heller said after Sunday’s season-ending loss to Houston. “They played unselfishly all season long. They play until the last out — they don’t quit — and they don’t change who they are based on who they play. They take care of their business whether it’s a midweek situation or a conference situation."

Iowa’s grit was tested early after weekend rotation candidates Nick Allgeyer and Kole Kampen needed Tommy John surgery before a pitch was even thrown. Couple those obstacles with C.J. Eldred’s torn UCL following start No. 1, and the Hawkeyes were soon scrambling for reliable arms with the season still barely off the ground.

But buoyed by a crucial offseason Dominican trip that cemented a belief among a fledgling group, leaders soon emerged. Right-hander Nick Gallagher elevated to Friday ace without much turbulence, churning out quality starts in nine of his first 12 outings en route to an 8-2 record with a 3.49 ERA. Southpaw Ryan Erickson ultimately shifted from the bullpen into the Saturday role and provided effective innings, particularly in the season’s final two months.

And the bullpen, with Josh Martsching, Zach Daniels, Kyle Shimp and Nick Nelsen as the headliners, capped off an up-and-down year with numerous vital performances, punctuating Iowa’s late-season surge with a 2.34 postseason ERA over 34 2/3 innings.

The pop, though was unforgettable.

With miracle-find Jake Adams and his seismic swings leading the way, the Hawkeyes ripped through the conference with one of the most deep and potent offenses in program history. A year after slugging just 26 homers as a team, Adams clobbered an NCAA-best 29 by himself, a new single-season record in both Iowa and Big Ten lore. Five other players, though, had at least five long balls as the Hawkeyes averaged more than six runs per contest across a 61-game slate.

MORE: The story behind each of Jake Adams' 27 home runs

Still, Iowa was modestly picked to finish tied for sixth in the conference. It ended fifth — but just 1.5 games behind regular-season champion Nebraska. After a Big Ten title run that saw the Hawkeyes knock off Maryland, the Huskers, Minnesota and Northwestern— three of which were slotted ahead of Iowa in the standings — Heller’s squad more than held its own in the Houston heat.

B1G Tournament coverage:

An opening-night stunner over the top-seeded Cougars marked the Hawkeyes’ second regional win in three years and set Iowa up with a chance to take control Saturday against Texas A&M. A one-run loss made it an uphill climb, but the fight never wavered even as Houston bounced the Hawkeyes, 7-5, late Sunday evening.

Houston Regional coverage:

“At the beginning of the year we were kind of the underdogs and had a young team,” said Adams, one of six new positional starters this season. “We knew what kind of talent we had right away going into that Dominican trip, and we’re a close-knit group. I haven’t played with anybody this close-knit.

“It has been fun to play with all of these seniors who have been here and some of the guys who haven’t been playing a lot — but who have been stepping it up on-and-off the field. We are a phenomenal team, and we’re right here where we should be. I can’t be more excited for what is to come in the future.”

Iowa’s 2018 version should look largely similar to this year’s, but Adams’ future decision remains a vital factor moving forward. His emphatic season has rocketed the 6-foot-2 South Dakota native up MLB draft boards, potentially into the top 10 rounds, and his stock likely won’t be any higher than it is right now.

That, along with Gallagher’s looming draft decision and the graduation of Mason McCoy, Martsching and Erickson, leave some decent holes to fill — but a strong recruiting class that features Iowa City West’s Connor McCaffery and a nice mix of in-state and junior college pieces could help offset those departures.

Eldred, Allgeyer and Kampen are all expected to return at some point in 2018. Six other positional starters and starting designated hitter Grant Judkins return as well.

“We’ll have a lot of guys who are quality pitchers who have been in the program and should be better next year,” Heller said. “We have an awesome recruiting class. Our pitching depth will be even better.

“… I like what we have coming back next season.”

That’s why a regional return was of utmost importance. This season’s fine finish could easily spill into 2018 and maintain the stability Heller continues to construct.

To encapsulate this season’s grit, the veteran baseball coach reached back as far and couldn’t find one with more growth.

“I don’t think in 30 years,” Heller said, “I’ve had a team from the first day of school in August until now that has made the strides that this ball club did.”

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.