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Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes feeling postseason urgency after painful regional misses

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Call it a sense of urgency. Call it the general expectations of Rick Heller’s program. Either way, Iowa knows it can’t let much more time pass by between regional appearances.

That sentiment is the product of back-to-back postseason misses, each one arriving in painful fashion following months of promise. Twice the Hawkeyes have been in regional discussions — at times seeming like an NCAA Tournament lock — before late stumbles sent Iowa home with mixed feelings on the year that was.

 It happened in 2018.It happened in 2019.

The Hawkeyes are out to make sure it doesn’t happen in 2020.

“That’s our main focus, getting back to the postseason,” junior Izaya Fullard said. “Obviously, everyone wants to make it to Omaha, but after last year, we were so close — one series away from getting an at-large bid.

“Having that in the back of our mind, we have a lot of guys back from last year’s team. So that sense of urgency is there — to do the extra reps and stuff like that in practice — so we can get back to a regional.”

Iowa players keep themselves entertained playing a game during Hawkeye baseball media day, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at the University of Iowa Indoor Practice Facility in Iowa City, Iowa.

The February feeling surrounding these Hawkeyes mirrors recent seasons as they ready for opening weekend at the Snowbird Baseball Classic. You won’t find Iowa generating national attention — or even really any Big Ten Conference buzz. Michigan is the conference darling right now and for good reason, after the Wolverines surged to a runner-up national finish and return a ton in 2020.

Baseball America has the Hawkeyes finishing fifth in the Big Ten; D1Baseball.com has Iowa slotted seventh. The league’s official preseason coaches poll only includes the top-six-teams — and the Hawkeyes weren’t one of them. You won’t find Heller’s squad in any regional projections.

Recent history shows that means little. The last three seasons have illustrated Iowa doesn’t need winter accolades for spring success. At this point, the Hawkeyes have earned the benefit of the doubt when predicting whether they’ll be knocking on postseason’s doorstep or not.

“It’s our goal every season to make the postseason, and hopefully get to the College World Series in Omaha. It’s just taking care of business one game at a time,” senior right-hander Grant Judkins said. “Trusting the process that if we do our thing and get the job done every day, we’ll be at that point at the end of the year.”                 

Reaching that level hinges on a few pivotal developments. Can Jack Dreyer elevate into Iowa’s next ace? Will Fullard’s full-time transition to second base unfold without defensive liabilities? Does freshman bopper Peyton Williams match his early hype? How long does it take the left side of the infield to take shape? Can Iowa find a reliable path from starter to closer Grant Leonard?

Maximizing a potent schedule is just as crucial. After a manageable opening slate against Kent State, St. Joseph’s and Pittsburgh, the Hawkeyes plunge into the meat of their nonconference schedule. The next two weekends feature four ranked foes, as Iowa competes in the Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament (San Diego State, No. 22 Arizona and San Diego) and the Cambria College Classic (No. 17 North Carolina State, No. 15 Duke and No. 18 North Carolina).

Getting those squads on the schedule is one thing. Toppling them for resume boosters is another. When it comes to answering some of Iowa’s top questions, the Hawkeyes don’t have the luxury of a trial run.

“Going into this season, we still had more battles going on for positions than maybe any year that I’ve coached,” Heller said. “You usually have two or three guys who are battling it out at certain spots, and we’ve got guys battling it out for six or seven spots.

“It’s a lineup that may change quite a bit in those first three or four weeks, trying to figure out what the best one is. There’s going to be a learning curve in there offensively, but I do think we have a chance to be a scrappy lineup from top to bottom.”

Iowa has leaned on that fight in resurrecting its baseball legitimacy. But progression is now measured in regional berths.

“The fact that the last two seasons have ended like they have, anybody on our team would say that’s not good enough,” infielder Brendan Sher said. “I don’t know what will be good enough unless we’re going to Omaha. Everybody is on the same page as that.”

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.