Can Iowa baseball sustain unbridled success of 2015?
To be executed to full potential, even the best-laid plans need a lot of factors outside a coach's control to come together. And Rick Heller's second season in charge of Iowa baseball played out almost perfectly.
(Although a few more timely hits against Missouri State would've helped.)
The question now becomes: Can "Hellerball" be sustained at Iowa for years to come?
"I think it can," Heller said. "This year is going to be a year where we're going to have a bunch of new guys, and how well they can adapt to Division I baseball is going to determine that."
The Hawkeyes' 41-18 season that ended with their first NCAA regional appearance in 25 years and first tournament victory in 43 was buoyed by many performance-based factors: A core of veteran players who bought in with Heller and delivered; a pitching staff that shattered the team record for ERA, at 2.95, by two-thirds of a run (the old mark was 3.63, set in 1971); and facilities refurbishments, including for the first time 24/7 player access to indoor batting cages.
Perhaps the season's greatest impact, though, was visible in social-media buzz and the seats.
It was fortuitous for baseball, perhaps, that Hawkeye fans were thirsty for that winning feeling after a frustrating 7-6 football season. They tasted national success in March, as both basketball programs won NCAA Tournament games. It was only five days after the men's team ended their season with a loss to Gonzaga that Heller's boys began a season-changing, three-game home sweep of then-No. 19 Indiana.
Fans became hooked, and instead of a few hundred supporters at Duane Banks Field, they began to file in by the thousands. They enjoyed the on-field product and the in-game experience — a fun mix of music, kid-friendly contests and a new video board.
A season-high 2,506 saw the Hawkeyes finish off a sweep of border-state Nebraska, and more fans joined the bandwagon as Iowa tried to keep pace with Illinois in the Big Ten title race. Iowa finished second — its best showing since 1990 — and its .792 conference winning percentage (19-5) was the highest for a runner-up team since divisional play was abandoned in 1988.
Interest seemed to collectively culminate on a Wednesday afternoon in late May, when Nick Day blasted a two-out, two-strike, two-run walk-off homer to beat Ohio State 3-2 in the Big Ten Tournament opener.
The program's key going forward is to keep fans and players invested long-term.
Heller loses a glut of seniors, including most regulars in the batting order, and might have the top two pitchers in his rotation — juniors Tyler Peyton and Blake Hickman — poached by the Major League Baseball draft, which starts Monday.
"I knew coming in this third year was going to be our biggest challenge," Heller said, "just because of all the new faces and the turnover. And so whatever happens this year, happens."
The good news: Heller signed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten, according to Perfect Game, thanks to locking up the prized in-state talent.
The Class of 2015 were all signed by the time departing seniors Eric Toole, Jake Mangler, Kris Goodman and Nick Hibbing took Iowa to the brink of the NCAA Super Regionals last weekend. Iowa won its first NCAA regional games — beating Oregon twice in Springfield, Mo. — since 1972.
"This class will be the future for our program and set the tone for the future," Heller said. "These guys that just left, what they were able to do strengthens thing so much for the new guys coming in. They see it can be done. They watched us play on TV or in the regional. That's where their heads are going to be. That's where that expectation is going to be."
Heller, 51, is under contract through the 2020 season. The Eldon native could be in his dream job much longer if the 2015 momentum keeps up.
Fans scrambled to stream coverage on web-based ESPN3 to watch Iowa battle No. 8 national seed Missouri State to the wire. The Hawkeyes were eliminated Sunday in a 3-2 loss after striking out twice in the eighth inning with the bases loaded.
Year 2 under Heller was so close to even more. But it was a giant step forward for this program.
"It was a great run, and the kids competed hard," Heller said. "To lose two games to a top-10 team in the country at their place by a total of three runs, I was really proud of how our kids competed in their first regional.
"I'm really happy for them, but I'm also really proud for our program and the steps we were able to take to set things up for the future."
IOWA BASEBALL: A LOOK BACK, A LOOK AHEAD
- RECORD: 41-18 overall, 19-5 Big Ten (second); lost in NCAA regional final to Missouri State
- KEY DEPARTURES (DEFINITE): The MLB First-Year Player Draft (which starts Monday) will offer a more thorough picture, but several key pieces to the program's No. 2 all-time season wins total are outgoing seniors. CF Eric Toole, 2B Jake Mangler, LF Kris Goodman and 3B Nick Day combined for 688 starts at Iowa. Toole's speed and high on-base percentage (with a school-record 207 singles) will be missed from the leadoff spot, and Mangler was a gritty fixture, not to mention the team's RBI leader. One of the biggest losses is Iowa's regional hero, RHP Nick Hibbing. The master of control (512/3 IP, five walks) as a shut-down reliever and was a huge factor in Iowa's 41 wins (he won four, saved eight).
- WHO MIGHT ALSO BE GONE: Put RHP Blake Hickman at the top of the list. Iowa's lone first-team all-Big Ten pick is projected as a second- or third-round MLB choice, so the school's first all-American since Brad Carlson in 1999 likely won't return for a senior encore. The key guy to sweat out is RHP/1B Tyler Peyton. He was Iowa's top hitter (.337) and Friday-night starter (7-4, 3.03 ERA). Other third-year players who could be drafted but may not sign are LHP Ryan Erickson, RF Joel Booker and RHP Connor Grant.
- KEY RETURNEES: SS Nick Roscetti was a wonderful surprise as a junior after Jake Yacinich went pro a year ago; he led Iowa in 24 Big Ten games with a .391 batting average. RHP Calvin Mathews (5-3, 2.45 ERA as the No. 3 starter) battled a shoulder issue to be named second-team all-Big Ten. RHP Luke Vandermaten (2-0, 1.06 ERA, 421/3 IP in 22 appearances) projects as a No. 3 starter or, more likely, as Hibbing's replacement as closer. Guys who showed flashes in limited action and will threaten to crack the starting lineup include OF Eric Schenck-Joblinske, 1Bs Grant Klenovich and Taylor Kaufman and UT Austin Guzzo.
- KEY NEWCOMERS: Coach Rick Heller brings the Big Ten's No. 1-ranked recruiting class, according to Perfect Game, into the fold — draft notwithstanding, of course. Heller says this group will be the building block to future success, and it begins with RHPs Cole Baker (Dallas-Center Grimes) and Chris Comito Jr. (Norwalk). OFs Luke Farley (Waterloo Columbus) and Robert Neustrom (Sioux City North) have big bats and could contend for immediate playing time as freshmen. Don't be surprised if junior-college IF Mason McCoy (Washington, Ill.) is first in line to fill Toole's vacated leadoff role. Incoming freshmen IFs Mitch Boe (Naperville, Ill.) and Daniel Perry (Susanville, Calif.) bring excellent credentials, too.
- HIGH POINTS OF 2015: There were great moments, but three-game sweeps at home — March 27-29 against Indiana, April 25-26 against Nebraska — signaled the arrival of Iowa's program as a Big Ten Conference-title contender under Heller. Mangler agreed, mentioning the Hoosiers (a 2013 College World Series participant) as the Big Ten's "gold standard. When they came in and we were able to win all three games, it's like, 'It's real now; we're actually a good team. We can do this.' " A season-high 2,506 fans watched Iowa finish off the Nebraska sweep.
- LOW POINT: Suffering its only Big Ten series loss of the season, dropping two of three games at 12th-place Rutgers, to close the regular season took the wind out of Iowa's sails as a possible NCAA regional host. The Hawkeyes would struggle to regain their season-long momentum, dropping two of three games at the Big Ten Tournament and settling for a No. 2 seed in the Springfield Regional at Missouri State.
- COULD HAVE USED: Big hits in Springfield. Day's ninth-inning double in the first loss (5-3) to eventual winner Missouri State was Iowa's only hit for extra bases in 38 regional innings. The Hawkeyes needed just one or two more timely hits — or even just one big base knock — to turn the tables in both losses to the host Bears. Mangler and Goodman struck out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Sunday's season-ending 3-2 defeat.
- MVP: Iowa shattered a school record for team ERA (2.95), but the contributions program-wide of Eric Toole were immeasurable. A glue guy who sported spectacular defense (his diving catch vs. Northwestern was No. 3 on ESPN SportsCenter's top 10 plays) and a .373 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot with 27 stolen bases was key in Iowa's grind-it-out offensive approach. Toole scored a team-high 42 runs — three of them coming in each first inning of the key sweep of Indiana.
- OPTIMISM FOR 2016: If Peyton doesn't turn pro and the freshmen are as good as advertised, Iowa's team ERA record could get broken again. A Big Ten rotation of Peyton, Erickson and Mathews would be among the league's best, allowing the mid-week games — key to determining NCAA fate — to get a pitching upgrade. The Hawkeyes might have to win games 2-1 and 3-2 quite often next season as they try to replace most of their offense, but the good news is they're used to it. Heller's 2015 Hawkeyes spent all season living on the edge, learning how to win close games.