IOWA CITY, Ia. — It doesn’t do anyone much good at this point, that’s for sure. But it’s hard to not envision what this week would’ve looked like in Iowa baseball’s circle.
Had coronavirus not engulfed the globe, Rick Heller and the Hawkeyes would’ve been embarking on their important closing stretch of the regular season. Iowa’s blend of finals and baseball would’ve started Monday — a time that naturally leaves Heller concerned as the Hawkeyes lock on a postseason push.
Stumbles against lesser foes have plagued Iowa’s regular-season endings the last two years. But a different opportunity existed in 2020. A trip to Michigan, last year’s College World Series runner-up, was set to commence Thursday. It’s could’ve been a battle of Big Ten title contenders.
Instead, Heller’s upcoming agenda looks like this.
“Next week will be a big week for all of us on staff,” Heller said. “Checking the grades to see if the reports we've been getting from the players and our academic people with our players (are accurate) — and that they finished out the semester the right way in the classroom. That's probably the most important thing to me right now.
“… Not being with them every day or seeing their faces or having more one-on-one talks in person, you can get fooled over the phone. You're not taking anything for granted, but I do feel really good about how our guys handled it.”
So it goes in this COVID-19 world. Coaches have tried to develop some normalcy while away from their players and staff. Couple that with the uncertainty permeating college baseball on multiple fronts, and it’s easy to see the unenviable spot Heller and so many others are in.
Hawk Central caught up with Iowa baseball’s head man this week to cover those very topics and more.
The most individualized issue among college baseball is how programs are handling their 2020 senior classes. Iowa had 10 members there — with as many as seven cemented pieces — and the initial word there is most of them are hoping to come back.
Heller said so far, only outfielder Justin Jenkins and closer Grant Leonard are definitely not returning.
"They both have been offered really good jobs," Heller said. "And then, Grant Leonard still has a chance to be signed as a free agent — and that's what he told me. He’s hoping for a chance to play pro ball, and we're all hoping he gets that chance. But if he doesn’t, he's going to move on and go into his profession."
As for the other eight — Grant Judkins, Adam Ketelsen, Trace Hoffman, Austin Martin, Matthew Sosa, Lorenzo Elion, Zeb Adreon and Ben Norman — Heller said they all want to return in 2021 unless an undrafted free agent opportunity emerges. With the MLB Draft officially set at five rounds, Iowa likely won’t have anyone selected.
“We’ve talked about it with every one of (the remaining eight seniors),” Heller said. “Now, there are guys who are still 100% trying to decide if it makes sense financially, even with a scholarship. Baseball players are still paying a lot of money to go to school. Those are all things I think will get worked out as we get near the fall.
“I know there are certain guys who are coming back to finish up their degree in the fall, and they have to make a decision whether or not they're going to stay and play in the spring and take on that financial burden in the second semester along with their scholarship. But as of right now, none of those guys have said a firm, ‘No, they're not coming back.’”
'A blanket statement isn't going to work for the majority of the country'
In hopes of mitigating COVID-19’s spread and installing as many cost-cutting measures as possible, reports of a shorter and regionalized 2021 college baseball season have surfaced. Unsurprisingly, Heller hopes a blanket ruling there isn’t implemented.
“Some leagues have already decided, ‘We're going cut this many games, or we’re going to do this.’ I'm more in line with I hope we’re involved in that decision,” Heller said. “If you need extra money from the budget or whatever, let us have a shot at it first to try to save that money without cutting games. If we do have to cut the games — if we can't meet the demands of the department to make cuts to the budget financially — why not let us be the ones to make those cuts and decisions.
“To make a blanket decision like that, I think is the wrong thing to do for our sport. Especially coming off a year where we only were able to play 15 games, and you have a bunch of guys coming back to play and spending that money to play. To cut those games and say we’re going to play regional (schedules) obviously isn't fair when we can't play in the north until late into the spring.”
Midwestern schools like Iowa already face a significant climb in building a postseason-caliber schedule compared to their southeastern and western counterparts. Simply put, there aren’t as many quality programs in areas not considered college baseball hotbeds. It’s one of the many items that has the sport imbalanced across the country.
That's a reason why Iowa often ventures out of its region for quality non-conference games. Heller’s also had success attracting strong programs to Duane Banks Field. Recent matchups against schools from California, Florida, Oklahoma, Nevada, Hawaii, Alabama and more have buoyed the Hawkeyes’ regional expectations.
“A blanket statement isn't going to work for the majority of the country,” Heller said, “and then, you have certain pockets of the country who can really benefit greatly from that. So that's been my take on it. We actually have contracted games already (for 2021). The schedules in baseball are done two to three years out, so it's not like it’s simple to make those changes (to regionalize the schedule). And there are some legalities there with contracts.
“So I’m hopeful that's not going to happen — at least in the Big Ten. But anything can happen. I think all of us know that at this point. At the end of the day, I think we all know we're going have to do whatever we have to do to get through this. And everyone's willing to do that. I just hope that the baseball coaches have a say in how that is managed.”
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.