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Robert Neustrom: 'We came around' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. —  Those distinct Jay-Z vocals pierce the Iowa air as Robert Neustrom calmly strolls toward home plate, his lanky 6-foot-3 frame loose and relaxed. When "Roc Boys" fires up, fans inside Duane Banks Field collectively whip their heads forward. Nobody wants to miss what might unfold.

There’s an expectation with every Neustrom at-bat, earned through three years full of timely wallops and a fine-tuned hitting prowess. The southpaw-swinging right-fielder has been a pivotal piece in Iowa baseball’s rebirth under Rick Heller, which continues Wednesday as the Hawkeyes (33-18) open the 2018 Big Ten Tournament against Michigan at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Neustrom’s black-and-gold days, though, could be dwindling.

From a Sioux City hopeful just searching for a chance to a proven lineup catalyst holding his own with the sport’s elite, Neustrom’s future in professional baseball is a when matter — not if.

That journey could commence this summer, should the junior standout decide to forego his senior season and add another notch to Heller’s growing list of quality draft selections. If taken within the first 180 picks — quite possible given his current stock — Neustrom would become Iowa’s highest drafted position player in 25-plus years.

“It’s kind of surreal how fast time flies for everyone,” he said after Saturday’s 8-4 win over Penn State, what could be his final home game.

“It seems like yesterday I was just moving into my dorm.”

Much ground has been covered since then.

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To those entrenched in Iowa athletics, this tale has a familiar opening. Talented in-state kid and diehard Hawkeye tucked away, far removed from the recruiting limelight. Iowa catches wind, swoops in — and off they soar.

Despite hitting .540 with 46 RBIs as a junior en route to winning Gatorade player of the year, the Sioux City North standout had only modest junior-college interest throughout the 2014 summer.

NIACC and Iowa Central pushed the hardest — as well as some smaller schools — but Neustrom held on to Division I dreams. But the state’s summer baseball setup can severely hinder recruiting in numerous ways.

Frustration was mounting.

“I firmly believe it, if Iowa played spring baseball like everyone else does, Robert probably would’ve ended up in the SEC (or the ACC),” said Neustrom’s high school coach Rory Jackson, who spent extended time recruiting the South as the former head man at Kentucky’s Spalding University (2001-09). “He probably would’ve ended up at a Florida State or an LSU or a big-time school. That’s how skilled I can compare him to the kids down south.

“Having coached 10 years and recruited 10 years down south, he was a prototypical kid who would’ve played at an SEC school. It was hard on him, I do know that, especially after his junior year. He put up tremendous numbers his junior year, and for him, it felt like he was fighting everything.”

With nothing to lose, Neustrom ventured to a fall showcase at Southeast Polk after that dominant junior year. He performed well and caught the eye of Iowa recruiting coordinator Marty Sutherland, who then invited the Hawkeye hopeful to an evaluation camp in Iowa City.

Iowa wanted Neustrom in its program from all indications, but the initial attraction didn’t unfold in the smoothest way. Two phone calls covered both ends of the emotional spectrum.

“Marty called me about a week (after the evaluation camp),” Neustrom recalled, “and said, ‘Listen, we just don’t have a spot on the team for you now.' I was pretty much distraught because I knew that was probably going to be my only shot to play D-I.”

With only 11.7 scholarships to divvy up among the entire roster, the financial logistics of college baseball can be very fluid as teams try to maximize that money as best they can.

“About a month” after Sutherland’s call, Neustrom’s phone rang again. Despite an awkward greeting, better news was on the other end.

“Heller called me one night. He was like, ‘Hey, this is Rick Heller from Iowa, and my first response was, ‘What?’” Neustrom laughed. He was like, ‘Coach Heller, University of Iowa.’ I was like, ‘Oh dang, coach. How you doing?’ It just threw me off. ... 

“But he called me and was like, ‘Hey, we want to get you down here on a visit — we got a spot — and we want you down here.’ They were very positive. They believed in me from the moment they saw me play at that showcase. Things opened up, came down on a visit — loved it — and that was it.”

Neustrom committed in early November 2014, three months into his senior year. With his collegiate future cemented, the Stars phenom hit .472, clubbed six homers and racked up 49 RBIs in his final prep season.

Neustrom then trekked to Iowa City, one benchmark already reached.

He wasn’t stopping.

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The burly basher from Brandon Valley stole the Hawkeye show in 2017, swatting one majestic homer after another everywhere he went. The casual baseball observer might’ve wondered why pitchers were still testing Jake Adams, who launched a staggering 29 long balls in his lone Iowa season.

The answer stood in the on-deck circle.

 A crucial move at the start of conference play — moving Neustrom from third in the order to cleanup for protection behind Adams — saw both players take off in the middle of Iowa’s order.

After a nice freshman season in which he made 38 starts and had the team’s third-highest batting average (.307), Neustrom solidified himself as a lineup anchor his sophomore year, able to inflict damage in any setting. He also landed a front-row seat to one of the most impressive power displays in college baseball history.

“Robert was able to see Jake get his good swing off almost every at-bat,” Heller said. “The stuff we had been working with Robert on from the start of his freshman year until that point, he was seeing it put into play in a real game situation in the on-deck circle, every single day.

“And Jake’s ability to make adjustments pitch to pitch, Robert — not just a coach telling you or showing you — he was seeing it in real time. So Robert was able to watch that, and I felt like it helped Robert to maybe let his guard down and try different things.”

As Adams piled up the national love, Neustrom was setting the table for loftier leaps as well. He produced a slash line of .310/.358/.486, started every game, launched nine homers and drove in 55, providing stability behind the slugging first baseman.  

It was a symbiotic relationship — Adams and Neustrom — and before the former moved onto professional ball in the Houston Astros organization, he left the latter with one final message.

“I don’t want to credit this to myself fully — but Jake thanked me,” Neustrom said. “He said, ‘The reason why I got as many pitches to hit was because you were able to hit well behind him and produce.’ That meant a lot to me. And I realized Jake had the show, but at the same time, I did play a role.”

No worries. Neustrom’s show was coming.

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Chad Gassman spends his springs in the Midwest and his summers in Massachusetts, ingrained in college baseball’s harshest offseason environment. The head baseball coach and athletic director at Illinois’ Judson University transitions in June to the prestigious Cape Cod League, where he’s led the Hyannis Harbor Hawks since 2009.

High-end prospects are splattered throughout every roster of the collegiate league, and droves of MLB scouts flock to every game. Staying afloat can be a daunting task.

“It’s about beating the Cape, just the pressure of the scouts and knowing you’re going to have some failure,” Gassman said. “Those are the guys who survive — when they can understand that there’s going to be some failure — but the whole point is to persevere.”

Neustrom did just that as a member of Gassman’s club, transforming a temporary contract into a Cape Cod League all-star selection last summer. In 30 games, he slashed .302/.346/.479 with five doubles, four homers and 18 RBIs.

“You had to believe in yourself,” said Neustrom, who added that “18 to 20” scouts attended every game. “I knew that was going to be a big thing that I really wanted to improve on. I told myself in the weeks leading up to it — don’t get beat.”

You perform like that in the Cape, you won’t be hiding much longer. And Neustrom’s case was no different. Just three years prior, gaining notoriety was his most pertinent obstacle. Now, the challenge was embracing it.

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As the accolades rolled in and the draft noise intensified, Heller sat his right-fielder down and took a mental inventory. Neustrom had never dealt with prime time status. It can be swift downfall if handled improperly.

“I just kept telling Robert that you have to play for the right reasons,” Heller said. “And as soon as you start worrying about things you can’t control, that’s when things are going to go south for you. And things can spiral out of control very quickly if you’re worried about performance, results for the wrong reasons — for the draft.

“When you get up there and you try to hit because you think the scouts want to see you hit, then the next thing you know, you’re chasing and in a slump.”

Neustrom admitted “it’s impossible” to completely block out external chatter, adding that he’s dwelled on what scouts might want to see at various points through the season. While his average never dipped below .300 this year, Neustrom did have just 20 RBIs through Iowa’s first 37 games. He’s since driven in 16 over his previous 14 contests.

All 30 major league teams — at some point — have reached out to Neustrom, who currently sits 188th in Baseball America’s latest prospect rankings, 44th in D1Baseball.com’s analytical college hitters rankings and 62nd on the site’s midseason college top 150.

“Doubt he lasts past the 4th round if he continues to perform,” D1Baseball.com’s director of college scouting David Seifert wrote in a chat when the midseason rankings were released on April 12. “He’s always hit at Iowa, as well as in the Cape last summer.”  

The Neustroms have leaned on an adviser to help him through the process, his parents choosing to stay removed from the bulk of the draft buildup. The intensity has ramped up as the draft inches closer (June 4-6), with his father, Tim, saying the adviser provides information on a weekly basis.

“It’s going to work out the way it works, as it’s intended to be,” Tim Neustrom said. “Robert knows that whatever the way it works out in the end, that’s the way it’s going to be. A lot of it could be by fate, a lot of it could be through hard work and some could just be through luck as well.”

In the meantime, Tim Neustrom, who recently retired, has spent the baseball season staying at an Airbnb in Iowa City, watching his son’s baseball career flourish beyond belief.

He’s been a Duane Banks Field mainstay —  as well as on the road — and will be at TD Ameritrade Park when his son takes the field. There’s unfinished business there for Neustrom and the Hawkeyes, which need a lengthy Omaha push to secure the program’s third regional appearance in four years.

Then, the draft will come. If Saturday was indeed the final time Neustrom walks up to Jay-Z in Iowa City, it’s certainly been a memorable ride.

“Committing to Iowa back when I was a senior in high school, he said, “I had high expectations to do a lot of special things when I was here. I just wanted to work hard and make sure that happened.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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