Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes 'making the best' of altered Big Ten schedule

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Let's get this out of the way first: Iowa coach Rick Heller and his Big Ten baseball cohorts are more than elated to prepare for actual games again. A year-plus of uncertainty and hypotheticals has gotten old.

That said, there’s palpable frustration with how the conference has approached the 2021 college baseball campaign.

“I’m not going to lie,” Heller said during Friday’s virtual media day, “I don’t think any coach in the league is happy with what’s being thrown at us.

“But we’re making the best of it. It’s over now.”

As the bulk of college baseball readied for a second season affected by COVID-19, Big Ten programs were still operating without an official schedule. That news finally dropped Feb. 17, all of two days before the sport’s primary opening day, leaving Heller and other league coaches little time to digest the severely altered slate.

It goes like this.

A 44-game, conference-only schedule starts next weekend — Iowa opens Saturday, March 6, while the rest of the Big Ten starts the day prior — igniting a grueling, 13-week stretch that offers little room for error. Four-game series pepper the early portion before traditional three-game series return down the stretch.

Iowa pitcher Hunter Lee (24) talks with teammates during a NCAA non conference baseball game, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

What stands out, though, are the weekend “pods,” which will see three teams play a round-robin setup on one campus that gets each program four games. With the Big Ten having 13 teams — Wisconsin doesn’t have baseball — the pod setup became necessary once the league stood firm on no nonconference action. Without the pod creation, one Big Ten team would be forced to have a bye each weekend.  

As of now, Iowa has three pod weekends — one at Duane Banks Field and two elsewhere. The Hawkeyes, Nebraska and Ohio State will play at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium (March 12-14) in what is considered the Cornhuskers’ home pod. Iowa will also join Ohio State and Maryland in Columbus (March 26-28). Maryland and Northwestern then come to Iowa City about a month later (April 23-25).   

Less than ideal. But better than nothing.

“It’s the best we could do with what we were given,” Heller said. “… We were hoping we’d just be given a number of weeks — because we’re not playing week one and week two (of the college baseball season) — and just schedule maybe four games each weekend would’ve made the scheduling a lot easier. But that was not the case. We had to stick to the 44 games. So 44 games in 13 weeks for 13 teams, the math doesn’t work out really well.

“So the three-team pod is really the only thing we can do to eliminate a team sitting out another week during the season with a bye. So you’ll have those three teams playing each other four games that weekend, and then the 10 other teams will be playing head-to-head. There will be a hodge-podge of head-to-head series that will have to be played as four-game series to get to 44 in those 13 weeks.”

There are schedule benefits to be found, though, particularly with inevitable COVID-19 disruptions upcoming. The pod setup can prevent healthy teams from having to sit out if an opponent is shut down.

"Let’s say we were playing someone and they went down with COVID, there’s a chance to get one of the teams from the pod that’s closest to you to jump out of that pod and play a head-to-head," Heller said. "That way it would possibly save teams from sitting out when they’re healthy if there was a COVID shutdown from the opponent. So that’s a nice thing.

"And then the other positive to the schedule is with the three-game head-to-head series mixed in the second half of the season — let’s say we’re playing Northwestern and we’re both down two games — we could turn that three-game series into a four-game series to try to catch up to get to 44. So I think you’ll see as we move down the road, there will be more four-game series as we go."

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