Iowa baseball's road from perennial loser to the NCAA Tournament was something that we all could have seen coming.
At his introductory July 15, 2013, press conference as the 22nd Hawkeye baseball coach, Rick Heller — sitting alongside the man who hired him, athletic director Gary Barta — told us what was going to happen.
"This is what Gary said to me: 'We'll do this together. I want a partner,' " Heller said. "We can do this. We can do it together. The administration is going to be beside you. And that's all I wanted to hear because if that happens, there is no question we can get this thing going.
"We are the University of Iowa, one of the best universities in America. If we can't get it done in baseball, there is something wrong. And with the partnership that we're going to have with Gary, myself and the administration, we'll go to work right now and we'll get this done. The future starts today, and the future is bright."
The upward momentum hasn't stopped since. Heller's first season ended with a 30-23 record and a return to the Big Ten Conference tournament, as a No. 8 seed, for the first time since 2010.
But things were just warming up for Year 2. Heller signed the Big Ten's No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Much-needed stadium improvements at Duane Banks Field were completed. And the on-field product was about to match its ascent.
Friday, Iowa (39-16) makes its fourth-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 1990. If the Hawkeyes can beat Oregon (37-23) in Springfield, Mo., it'll be yet another historic moment. They haven't won an NCAA regional game since the 1972 team made a run to the College World Series.
How this magical season came to this point, in the Hawkeyes' words:
"(A Big Ten title) is a very realistic goal for us this year, and it's something we will play for every single day."
Second baseman Jake Mangler, a fifth-year senior, surely turned heads with that statement during Iowa's media day. The Hawkeyes? Big Ten contenders after going 10-14 a year ago and losing shortstop Jake Yacinich early to the big-league draft? Just wait.
"Our pitching staff is 10 times deeper than it was a year ago."
Still at media day, right-hander Calvin Mathews forecast what was to come. The No. 1 starter a year earlier, Mathews was shifted into the No. 3 role behind Tyler Peyton and Blake Hickman. Hickman (first team) and Mathews (second) would be named all-Big Ten, and Peyton was a third-teamer as one of the league's top two-way players. Iowa's school record for ERA in a season is 3.63, set in 1971, but that'll be shattered. The Hawkeyes' ERA is 3.00 entering the NCAAs.
"It takes a mature team to handle the adversity we went through early in this ball game and to find a way to win."
A 6-5 victory Feb. 21 over Missouri State in Grand Prairie, Texas, began a team-of-destiny ride. Not only did the win come against an opponent that would finish the regular season with a top-10 RPI, but it marked the Hawkeyes' first of six walk-off victories.
The hashtag has taken a new life of its own on Twitter. At the end of this montage, Rick Heller himself weighs in.
"Having the turf is fantastic. I can't tell you enough. We practiced outside six times in January. I've been doing this 31 years, and we were outside one time in my career before (this year)."
Heller spoke after Iowa unveiled its state-of-the-art turf field in a March 11 home-opening 7-1 win over AIB — a good three weeks before the school would've tried to host a game in the past. Better facilities, as Heller stated upon his arrival, have been key to Iowa's culture change.
"We needed something like this. To start 3-0 against the 19th-ranked team in the country, that's something that hasn't been around here for a long time. It's just a beginning for us."
Senior outfielder Eric Toole on March 29 was reacting to a sweep of Indiana to open the Big Ten season. The Hoosiers had won the past two Big Ten Tournament championships. The Hawkeyes, in wins of 2-0, 5-1 and 10-6, had announced their arrival as contenders.
"We're a lot better than we were when we came into the weekend. We were a little unsure about a couple guys. Now I feel a lot better about them."
Heller, on April 12, spoke of his bullpen's performance in taking two of three games at Maryland — a Big Ten newcomer that won an NCAA Super Regional game a year earlier. Iowa improved to 8-1 in the conference, but more importantly, Heller was beginning to identify a bullpen Big Three in Ryan Erickson, Nick Hibbing and Luke Vandermaten. Iowa has set a school record for team saves (18).
"The fact that we have a big crowd for baseball is just more validation that Hawkeye fans love to watch their team. Especially when they're competitive."
If you built it — a winning program — people will come. Barta spoke April 18 as nearly 2,000 fans streamed into Duane Banks Field to watch the Hawkeyes in a Saturday game against Northwestern. The night before, more than 1,500 saw Iowa score three runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 4-3 win.
"If you would have told me we were going to sweep Nebraska without Tyler Peyton (foot) hitting or Nick Day (back) in the lineup, I would have had a hard time believing that. To overcome the injuries we have and fill gaps is remarkable."
Heller spoke of another program-changing weekend. Iowa improved to 13-2 in the Big Ten, with a season-high 2,506 fans watching the Hawkeyes finish off the Cornhuskers on April 26 for a three-game sweep. Unfortunately, as Iowa kept winning, so did Illinois. The Illini would end up winning 27 games in a row.
Eric Schenck-Joblinske drew a walk to set up Nick Day's two-out heroics against Ohio State. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
"That would be a really big deal, not only for our program, but for the school in general to host a baseball regional. Something that maybe nobody would have ever thought in their wildest dreams would happen."
Heller spoke May 6 about the unthinkable — Duane Banks Field possibly being one of 16 host sites for an NCAA regional, something the Hawkeyes have never done. Though it didn't end up happening, the fact that Iowa filed the proper paperwork and were projected, at that point with a 34-12 record, as a host site was something that drew national attention.
"I'm just trying not to think about him not being here next year, to be honest with you. He's going to be irreplaceable. He's an outstanding player. He's done it for four years."
Heller spoke of leadoff man Toole, who set a school record for career singles (he now has 203) in a 7-3 win over Minnesota. The Council Bluffs native has epitomized Hellerball: Playing hard, fast and smart. Iowa would end up second in the Big Ten with a 19-5 league record, contending until the final weekend — just like Mangler said in February.
"I was expecting a slider late. It was a pretty decent pitch. I don't know how I got to it. I'm still kind of shocked."
Day spoke after second-seeded Iowa's stunning, 3-2 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament opener May 20. The senior from Solon delivered the season's signature moment with a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. However, Iowa would be sent home from Target Field with losses to Michigan and Indiana the next two days.
"As a coach that's going to be coaching a team that's never been to a regional, you don't know how they're going to take it. I'm hoping they're going to go out and just play as hard as they possibly can."
In his final comments after Big Ten elimination, Heller looked ahead to Friday's double-elimination Springfield (Mo.) Regional. The Hawkeyes have lost four of six games, a rare dip in a magical season. But their complete story has yet to be told.
The Hawkeyes defeated Oregon 3-1 on Friday, May 29 to earn their first NCAA Tournament win in 43 years. The win also increased Iowa's record to 40-16 overall.