HOUSTON — In a game that thrives on the complex, Corbin Woods’ reminder provided a fresh dose of simplicity. Although he sees minimal playing time, the Iowa senior is one of the most respected members of the Hawkeyes — and his midseason words re-emphasized a pivotal mantra.
“Corbin came up to us earlier in the season and said, ‘Boys, we’re not playing them — we’re playing the baseball today,’” teammate Chris Whelan recalled Monday. “And I think we’ve held true to that slogan.”
Now, on college baseball’s grandest stage, it gets put to the ultimate test.
As the Hawkeyes embark upon what has largely been uncharted territory throughout their baseball history — the NCAA Tournament — maintaining a grounded approach becomes all the more imperative as fourth-seeded Iowa readies for a star-studded regional lineup.
First up is Friday’s showdown with No. 1 seed Houston (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.), a vital player in Texas’ profound college baseball scene, along with other Houston Regional members Baylor and Texas A&M. The Cougars’ evidence is plastered across the Schroeder Park outfield wall: 15 regular-season and tournament titles, 21 NCAA regionals, four super regionals, two College World Series berths.
Iowa, meanwhile, is making NCAA Tournament appearance No. 5 — it its history.
“Looking at the regional, there are some big names,” reliever Josh Martsching said. “But that’s why you play college baseball, to take down those programs.”
Conquering any internal doubt buoyed Iowa’s romp to a Big Ten Conference Tournament title, re-emphasizing the sheer belief that any team — no matter the record, lineup or program stature — has a chance to fall at the Hawkeyes’ hands. Slotted fifth in Bloomington, Ind., Iowa’s first three wins came against the Nos. 4, 1 and 3 seeds, two of which reached NCAA regionals as well.
Last weekend’s external predictions didn’t include a Hawkeye dogpile. This weekend’s likely won’t either.
“Being the No. 4 seed, no one is going to expect us to come out of that regional, which is fine with us,” right-hander Nick Gallagher said. “We haven’t really been expected to do what we’ve done this year, especially with the injuries we’ve had.
“We’ll definitely use it as a chip on our shoulder to go down there — and we can compete with anybody. We’re a hot team right now.”
Since the NCAA Tournament implemented its current regional setup in 1999, there have been a handful of underdogs to pull off some opening-weekend craziness. Five No. 4 seeds have won regionals, all coming in the last 12 years: Missouri in 2006, Fresno State in 2008, Stony Brook in 2012, College of Charleston in 2014 and VCU in 2015.
A little Hawkeye buzz has surfaced — D1baseball.com pegged Iowa as the toughest No. 4 seed in the tournament and Jake Adams as the top offensive player in the regional, adding that Iowa “could give Houston all it could handle and more.”
Still, the Hawkeyes will get a Houston squad that boasts both the conference pitcher and player of the year, in southpaw Trey Cumbie (10-1, 1.88) and third baseman Jake Scheiner (.347 average, 17 homers, 57 RBIs). The Cougars were the No. 2 seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament but rolled to a title by outscoring foes, 32-14, while averaging eight runs per game.
The tourney championship was Houston’s sixth in program history, the third in the last decade. Iowa had never won a conference tournament crown until last weekend.
As a result, Rick Heller knew refocusing his unit was paramount.
“We had a really good talk after (Monday’s) celebration, and we had a chance to calm down about that right there,” the Iowa baseball coach said, “that, ‘Here’s the deal. This isn’t the end-all. We’ve been talking about playing baseball in June since the first day we showed up. You guys are going to get that opportunity. This can’t be the end of it, and hopefully, all of you have prepared for it, mentally prepared for it.’
“I thought practice Tuesday would be a good sign for me, and we came out with a really awesome work ethic. It was like a fall practice — everybody was dialed in. there was no messing around because it’s late in the year and we’re coming off a championship. I felt like the guys were really focused on getting better still, which is what we talk about. Same on Wednesday, and I liked what we saw (Thursday in Houston). We worked — but we were loose — and that’s a great sign too.”
Now, it comes down to execution. The conference tournament provided the blueprint for success, that everyone from the big boppers, to the starting pitchers, to the last man in the bullpen must be at their best for Iowa to advance.
Engulfed by the sweltering Houston heat, Whelan circled back to the same simplicity Thursday.
It’s Iowa versus the baseball — and nobody else.
“We’ve got a full head of steam,” he said, “and I truly believe that we believe that no one can stop us right now.
“… Believing that we can truly beat any team regardless of the name, we’re playing the baseball at the end of the day. It’s Iowa versus the baseball, and I think every single guy on this team believes that.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.