Iowa baseball gathers title-contending steam in Heller's 2nd year

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Optimism has moved quickly within the Iowa baseball program, much like the infrastructure going up around it.

The victory column is one measurement of success. A year ago, the Hawkeyes won 30 games for just the third time in 21 seasons.

The tangible measurements are there, too. Duane Banks Field has been dressed with brand new artificial turf, landscaping and fencing. A splashy new video board should be installed by late March.

But more than any of that, perhaps the greatest signal of something special going on in Iowa City is this: In November, Iowa — yes, Iowa — signed the Big Ten Conference's No. 1-ranked recruiting class, according to Perfect Game.

Yes, Iowa — a program that hasn't won a Big Ten championship in 25 years and has barely been conference-relevant in that time frame, with 20 bottom-half league finishes.

The common denominator in all of it is second-year coach Rick Heller. The players can tell you about him.

"He's a great guy," third baseman Nick Day says. "It kind of starts with him."

"He's just become more than a coach," pitcher Blake Hickman says. "I can talk to him about anything."

"He's just a motivator, I guess you could say," staff pitching ace Calvin Mathews says. "Every day you come to practice, you love being here."

Of course, Heller doesn't fancy himself as the face of the program. Look at last year's media guide, and you won't find his profile until page 39.

But look around, go to a game, talk to the players — and you'll see buzz is brimming around Heller and his coaching staff.

"What they've been able to do in the last two years is amazing," second baseman Jake Mangler says. "To see all the improvements and everything that's happening around Iowa City and the state of Iowa in baseball — it's pretty awesome to see that it's going in the right direction."

Owning the state

Records like 19-35, 22-33 and 16-35 are part of the Hawkeyes' unceremonious recent past under coaches Scott Broghamer (six seasons) and Jack Dahm (10 seasons). Even Banks, for whom Iowa's diamond is named, had a 17-30 dud in his final season of 1997.

One of Heller's tenets was to persuade in-state high school players to stay home. That's why last year's 30-23 breakthrough was a game-changer.

"I felt like all along, the kids want to come to Iowa. We just needed to give them a reason," Heller says. "I felt like by the steps we took last season, we gave them a reason. The kids are excited in the state."

It was a smart move, considering Heller's deep ties in the state. He was born in Eldon and built relationships with high schools around Iowa during 12 years at Upper Iowa and 10 at Northern Iowa.

That Iowa State (in 2001) and UNI (in 2009 — Heller's final year) discontinued baseball leaves Iowa as the state's lone Division I landing spot.

Seventeen of this year's 35 players are from Iowa. And check out that top-ranked Big Ten recruiting class. Seven of the 13 incoming players are in-state guys, including Iowa's top six prospects, according to Perfect Game.

"I think it should be a thing to get everyone from Iowa to come here and protect the players in Iowa," says all-Big Ten outfielder Eric Toole, a Council Bluffs native. "You want to be wearing your state's name on your jersey. I find it exciting."

Heller admits he could lose a few of his recruits to the MLB draft in June. But, hey, at least they're signing with Iowa — yes, Iowa.

What's realistic?

Toole has season tickets to the College World Series in Omaha, Division I baseball's Promised Land. Of course, the senior would love it if he could be in uniform instead.

But that's far-fetched for any Big Ten program in a sport dominated by teams located in warmer climates. Indiana in 2013 was the first conference representative to make it to the Omaha Eight since Michigan in 1984.

So, in the Big Ten, thinking big means winning the conference championship — which just got tougher this year with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

Iowa tied for seventh out of 11 teams (there's no Wisconsin) a year ago, but tasted success with one win in its first Big Ten Tournament appearance since 2010. Hopes are high because almost the entire Hawkeye roster returns off a team that led the Big Ten in hitting and runs. Plus, Mathews is healthy after a shoulder injury limited him in 2014.

"(A Big Ten title) is a very realistic goal for us this year," Mangler says, "and it's something we will play for every single day."

Mathews is getting help in the rotation from Hickman, a converted catcher. The junior from Chicago has turned big-league heads.

"Our pitching staff is 10 times deeper than it was a year ago," Mathews says.

Heller, the popular guy at the top, can't help but be excited as he looks around. His players even got to practice on the new turf during some mild January days, a huge benefit as the team prepares for Friday's season opener against Kansas State in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Year 2 after arriving from Indiana State, Heller says, "feels a lot different. We have our feet underneath us. Guys really worked hard this offseason. Basically, that started after the conference tournament last year. There's a lot of motivation to take it further this year."

The players have bought into changing the culture of baseball at Iowa — yes, Iowa.

Now they want to pay their coach back for the energy he's injected into the program.

"He really does care about the players, about what we're doing and how we're feeling and things like that," Mangler says. "That makes us want to play harder for him.

"He does a great job being there for us, and he makes us want to be there for him, too."


2014 record: 30-23, 10-14 in Big Ten (T-7th)

Coach: Rick Heller (2nd season at Iowa; 720-588-4 record overall in 27 years)

Notable: Returned to Big Ten Tournament last season for first time since reaching 2010 championship game. Went 1-2, with a 2-1 win over Minnesota.

Season opener: Friday vs. Kansas State in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Home schedule: March 11 (AIB), March 25 (Bradley), March 27-29 (Indiana), March 31 (Grand View), April 8 (Milwaukee), April 15 (Cornell College), April 17-19 (Northwestern), April 22 (Northern Illinois), April 24-26 (Nebraska), April 28 (Sacramento State), May 5 (Western Illinois), May 8-10 (Minnesota).

Tickets: Season tickets at Duane Banks Field are $75 for adults, $40 for youth; single-game prices are $7 and $3.

Key Hawkeyes in 2015: OF Eric Toole (Council Bluffs) is a two-time Big Ten selection and is sixth all-time at Iowa with 143 career singles. … Second-team all-Big Ten 2B Jake Mangler (Clinton) led Iowa in RBIs (45) a year ago and batted .315. … P Calvin Mathews (Bloomfield) is returning from a shoulder injury. Last year's staff ace struck out 60 in 722/3 innings a year ago with a 2.72 ERA. … DH Dan Potempa (Tinley Park, Ill.) batted .330 a year ago with a .413 on-base percentage for a team that led the Big Ten in batting average, hits and runs. … Nick Roscetti (Sherman, Ill.) takes over at SS for Iowa's top hitter a year ago, Jake Yacinich. … P Blake Hickman (Chicago) is converting to a starting role. He struck out 34 and walked 23 in 341/3 innings a year ago.

Big Ten Tournament: May 20-24 at Target Field, Minneapolis.