After completing initial groundwork, Iowa Hawkeyes ready to continue baseball ascension
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fully emerging from the depths of irrelevancy usually doesn’t happen in one season, or even two. Reconstructing a culture and expectations often unfolds in waves.
Iowa baseball’s initial work is complete. After decades of futility and little outside interest, Rick Heller has injected life into the Hawkeyes, with two regional berths in a three-year span. Iowa had three in school history before his arrival in 2014.
Fresh off a Big Ten Conference Tournament title and a postseason Texas tango that flung Iowa onto national college baseball radars, the Hawkeyes are ready to make that a regular occurrence. Only one Big Ten team has reached the College World Series since Michigan’s final appearance there in 1984, but this Iowa staff firmly considers Omaha an attainable goal.
It may not materialize this year or next year or even the season after that. But Heller knows it can happen, as long as his program is consistently producing NCAA Tournament runs and not just sporadic success.
So begins the next phase.
“That’s the big thing in getting to Omaha,” Heller said last week during media day. “If you’re only getting to a regional once every four or five years, then that’s that team’s first time being there — and you have to go through all that. It makes it a lot tougher.
“But if you can get there year after year, you eventually catch a break and things go your way. Next thing you know, you’re in a super regional, and you win two games to get there. That’s what we’re pushing for — getting our program to a point where we can consistently count on getting into a regional each and every year.”
Making that challenge a reality falls on the 2018 squad, which opens the season Friday against Toledo as part of the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida.
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The professional ranks gobbled up sizable names from last year’s magical run, but that's an obstacle for quality programs every season. The MLB should come calling for an expanding brand, and it did in the cases of Nick Gallagher, C.J. Eldred, Ryan Erickson, Mason McCoy and Jake Adams.
The holes, though, are undeniably large, justifying the preseason skepticism. The Hawkeyes were picked sixth in the Big Ten coaches' poll, behind Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan. Neither of the sport’s top two publications — Baseball America and D1Baseball — projected the Hawkeyes as a regional team this year.
The 2017 squad, however, carried a similar preseason outlook and clawed its way into a regional. It’s on the next wave of talent to follow suit.
"This year, I just have bigger expectations, a larger work ethic, larger expectations for each of my teammates," right fielder Robert Neustrom said. "I think we’re going to do some more special things this year.
“That’s how you build a dynasty. I’m going to say it — we’ve got a special program here — whether other people want to admit it or not.”
After a quality summer in the Cape Cod League that generated a horde of preseason accolades, Neustrom will undoubtedly be Iowa’s lineup catalyst as one of six returning positional starters. The Hawkeyes will need to find some consistent protection behind him, whether that's from Tyler Cropley, Matt Hoeg, Grant Judkins or someone else.
Heller indicated that two new starters — third baseman Lorenzo Elion and shortstop Kyle Crowl — will begin the year in the everyday lineup. One more will enter as well, with Chris Whelan (Tommy John surgery) sidelined until potentially mid-March.
Given Adams’ departure, the Hawkeyes won’t be the power-hitting squad that clubbed 71 homers a season ago. But Iowa feels it has enough offensive pieces to manufacture runs at a consistent rate.
It’s a cloudier scene in the weekend rotation. The MLB hit Iowa the hardest there, as Heller was essentially forced to revamp the entire thing. He’ll roll out southpaw Nick Allgeyer, right-hander Cole McDonald and junior-college transfer Brady Schanuel to start, but performance the first few weeks will largely dictate if that sticks.
There is unproven potential with each.
Allgeyer thrived as a nice bullpen piece in 2016, but is coming off Tommy John surgery himself and hasn’t been a regular starter yet at the college ranks. After producing an ugly 6.96 ERA last season with a 6.96 ERA in 13 outings (11 starts), McDonald tossed a no-hitter in the World University Games and has shown signs of his freshman self (4-1 with a 3.33 ERA as Iowa's midweek starter).
Schanuel, a 20th-round selection by the Phillies last June and a two-time all-American at Parkland College, was arguably the Hawkeyes’ biggest offseason land. But he’ll be eased back slowly after dealing with rotator cuff fatigue and isn’t expected to throw a full workload early on.
Solidarity, though, can be found in the bullpen. Iowa lost a grinder in do-it-all righty Josh Martsching, who largely buoyed the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament run. But the returning pack of Shane Ritter, Nick Nelsen, Kyle Shimp and Zach Daniels is expected to provide veteran stability.
“The bullpen is really deep and really strong,” Heller said. “We can go a lot of different directions.”
Iowa’s freshmen pitching quartet should make an impact as well. Heller said they’ve built up Johnston graduate Jack Dreyer and Davenport Assumption product Trenton Wallace as starters, although Dreyer did encounter a minor offseason back problem that has his pitch count set back a bit to start. Either could begin as midweek options and transform into weekend guys if needed.
Dowling Catholic’s Ben Probst and Fairfield’s Cam Baumann both will likely start in the bullpen as a power righty arm and lefty specialist, respectively.
“As pitchers, our No. 1 job is to do whatever we can to help the team win,” Dreyer said. “So whichever one of us (freshmen) who’s on the mound, we’re just all rooting for them to make sure that they’re doing what it takes to get the win.”
Unlike last season, the Hawkeyes will get more of the conference’s upper echelon come Big Ten play. Of the five teams picked ahead of Iowa in the preseason poll, it’ll face everyone but Maryland.
Perennial regional squad Oklahoma State ventures to Iowa City in May, and recently successful programs such as Missouri State, UNLV and St. Louis dot the nonconference schedule as well. If the Hawkeyes take care of business against their quality foes and catch some scheduling breaks elsewhere, Heller strongly believes there’s an at-large path to be found. The conference tournament title was special for the program, but those can’t be consistently counted upon for regional berths.
“Coming off the big year that they had last year, we’ve got some high expectations again this year,” Elion said. “It’s kind of impossible not to buy in to what (Heller) is saying, with the results he’s had since he’s been here.”
That groundwork is finished.
The second phase is next.
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.