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Iowa catcher Tyler Cropley breaks down his walk-off grand slam. Dargan Southard/Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller and his staff watched last season’s final series unfold, they all arrived at one conclusion.

The Fighting Illini were coming.

The Hawkeyes took two of three at Illinois to end the 2017 regular season, but Heller and company were spot-on. Iowa (14-8, 1-1 Big Ten) readies for another Champaign trek this weekend, a series that now jumps out on the conference slate thanks to the Illini’s 2018 surge so far.   

“(Associate head) coach (Marty) Sutherland and I were talking,” Heller said Wednesday, “and we felt like playing Illinois that last series last year — with the guys they had back — we were both going, ‘I think they have a chance to be really good.’ They have a really good defense, some older players back who can swing the bat. And they have some really good arms, especially at the back end of their bullpen.

“So it’s going to be a real challenge for us this weekend, having to go back on the road and back down there two years in a row.”

Despite being picked no better than seventh in the conference’s preseason poll (only the top six teams are released), Illinois (16-5, 3-0) has been the Big Ten’s most impressive squad so far in terms of exceeding expectations.

D1Baseball.com has the Illini ranked 25th; Baseball America has Illinois 22nd. Illinois has already racked up nice wins over Coastal Carolina, UCLA, Arizona and Washington, resulting in a strong RPI of 34. That was tops in the conference heading into Friday.

“They’ve played arguably as well as anybody in the league up to this point,” Heller said.  “They have some of the biggest, if not the biggest, wins over ranked teams as anybody in the league.

“They’re a very, very good team.”      

Iowa now has a chance to capitalize. After splitting with a top-15 Indiana team to begin conference play, the Hawkeyes can take another step forward in the Big Ten while also bolstering its at-large resume.

With a 1-1 showing against the Hoosiers and a comeback win over Bradley, Iowa has upped its RPI from 84 to 63 in the last week. The Hawkeyes are certainly trending in the right direction, but there’s a lot of season left. And Iowa will need that figure to drop a bit more if it wants to seriously enter the at-large conversation.

A strong showing in Champaign would be a nice start.

“It’s going to be a little colder — a little rainy — so it’s going to be a little wet,” catcher Tyler Cropley said. “But the adversity part, I think we’ll overcome. We did it last year, and it’s carried into this year.”

Resiliency was certainly tested Wednesday night, as Iowa nearly trekked into the Illinois series hobbling a bit. With a chance to grab their best RPI nonconference win so far, the Hawkeyes raced out to a 6-1 lead over Bradley before the wheels fell off.

The Braves stormed back, with the help of 10 Iowa walks, a hit batsman and two errors, and owned a 9-8 advantage after seven. But the Hawkeyes had one more push, tying the game in the eighth and ending it with Cropley’s walk-off grand slam in the ninth.

Heller said he was confident his team would bounce back for Illinois, regardless of how Wednesday’s slog finished. But midweek stumbles are never fun, especially ones full of slop. Iowa narrowly avoided one again.

The pitching, primarily the bullpen, will need to be much cleaner at Illinois, which leads the league in slugging percentage (.470), doubles (53) and home runs (26), is tied for fourth in runs scored (148) and ranks third in RBIs (140).

Much of that damage comes from first baseman Bren Spillane, who’s racked up 11 homers, 33 RBIs and a .474 average through 21 games.     

Iowa can make some noise with a quality performance. But the Hawkeyes will get swallowed up on the road if they aren’t sharp.  

“We’re just going to play up to our competition,” sophomore Lorenzo Elion said. “They’re hot right now, but we love playing ranked teams. That’s what we play for.”

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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