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Rick Heller encapsulates Iowa's 2019 season, which included many positives despite rough finish. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — For a second straight year, the end-of-season tone carried elements of optimism and disappointment. So it goes when trying to define the 2019 Hawkeyes.

If you told Iowa early this year that — with the MLB Draft losses, coaching moves and injuries — it would be in regional talks into May, most would've taken that. Yet, examining the route to Friday’s season-ending loss in Omaha reignites a deja vu feeling — and not a good one. Another down-the-stretch sputter is why the Hawkeyes are home in June.

Hence why the exit feeling is a complicated one.

“This season I think we proved we can play with anyone. We beat a bunch of ranked teams — had a lot of great series — we just sometimes had some lapses where we didn’t play great and lost to some teams we shouldn’t have,” outfielder Ben Norman said. “But I do think we set ourselves up to achieve all of our goals.

“It’s just toward the end, we fell off a little bit. That’s what it came down to in the end. We just had to finish a little bit stronger, and we probably would’ve extended our season.”

Regional expectations are yearly in the Rick Heller era, where Iowa has shaken free from its cellar-dwelling status and is now one of the conference’s more consistent teams. But with that comes heightened demands.

Without changing much, Iowa in the last five seasons could have four NCAA Tournament appearances — three via the at-large route. That’s a loud statement inside the Big Ten, where programs often struggle sustaining lengthy surges.

Instead, the Hawkeyes must settle for a few solid series wins and one Big Ten Tournament upset. The 2019 season was by no means a step back, especially considering the obstacles hurdled. But there had to be some “what-if” thoughts as Monday's Selection Show rolled along with no Iowa love.         

“We didn’t get it done,” Hawkeyes coach Rick Heller said, “but I’m super happy with how these guys competed all year long. They will go down in my memory as a team that overcame as much as any I’ve coached.”

That’s because this season could’ve easily been what every coach fears — a step back amid success.

Before a pitch was thrown, Iowa had to replace its two most potent hitters (Robert Neustrom and Tyler Cropley), its Friday ace (Nick Allgeyer) and its most reliable bullpen arm (Zach Daniels). Throw in early season-ending injuries to Jack Dreyer and Ben Probst — plus stretches without Chris Whelan, Tanner Padgett, Lorenzo Elion, Hunter Lee and others — and Iowa could’ve been buried early.

Instead, the Hawkeyes dug in and clawed back.

An early-March series win at eventual regional host Oklahoma State made it clear Iowa was sticking around. The way the Hawkeyes bounced back from their first Big Ten series — three losses at Indiana — showcased that Heller resiliency. Iowa finished 10-8 against NCAA Tournament teams, including series wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska.

“Started with really great leadership from the seniors and our captains,” Heller said. Those guys were outstanding and driven to not let us take a step back, even though all of us knew that some of the situations we were faced with were pretty tough.”

Iowa’s 2019 class ran nine deep, full of pivotal contributors.

Whelan, who first made stops at Bradley and Parkland College, leaves Iowa City after three reliable years in left field. Cole McDonald’s freshman-to-senior transformation has been fascinating to watch. It’d be difficult to find someone teammates respect more than Mitchell Boe. Transfers Tanner Wetrich and Jason Foster made impacts in a short window.     

“Just a lot of the lessons I learned from a lot of the seniors. I didn’t know them a long time, but they just made you feel at home,” said freshman Duncan Davitt, a candidate to join the weekend rotation in 2020. “A lot of teaching moments about not just baseball, but just being a good person.”

For the first time in three seasons, it appears graduation will hit Iowa harder than the MLB Draft. No Hawkeyes are ranked in Baseball America’s top 500. There aren’t any clear-cut early departures like a Neustrom or a Jake Adams of seasons’ past.

McDonald will be a solid sign next month. A couple other seniors could ink as well. Otherwise, juniors Grant Judkins, Norman and Austin Martin appear the likeliest to bounce. Heller, however, won’t know exactly what he’s working with until the draft is completed.  

If everyone returns, Iowa should be in decent position entering 2020. With McDonald’s exit and Dreyer’s shoulder issue, solidifying the weekend rotation stands as the biggest key to success.

The Hawkeyes unfortunately learned the hard way what happens when the pitching crumbles. That was the main cog in Iowa’s down-the-stretch stumble, which saw the Hawkeyes drop series to Michigan State and Maryland after cracking the top 25 just three weeks ago.

From May 5 to Monday, Iowa’s RPI plummeted from 49th to 102nd.       

If anything, 2019’s circuitous route was another reminder how tight the margin for error is when Midwest and northern programs are vying for NCAA Tournament bids.

“We believed at the end that we’d get to where we wanted to,” Heller said. “And unfortunately — for whatever reason — our pitching really faded at the end. Our starting pitching kind of hit the wall the last seven games, and we were a little shorthanded. … Same thing with our bullpen guys. They weren’t nearly as sharp as they were for three-quarters of the season coming down the stretch. That's something we’ll try to figure out — if there’s anything we could’ve done better to not allow that to happen.

“But these guys really fought every day, and what a great group to coach.”  

The Hawkeyes gave it their best shot. Digesting the final result carries mixed emotions.

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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