After painful NCAA Tournament misses, Iowa baseball needs a regional return in 2022

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The past three Selection Mondays have been spent on the bubble’s rougher side, with the slimmest of margins separating Iowa baseball from disappointing ends and NCAA Tournament preparations. The eldest Hawkeyes haven’t forgotten how much that feeling stings.

Going on five years since Iowa’s last regional appearance, the recent years have offered plenty of lessons on valuing every morsel of a baseball season. Hypotheticals run wild when the NCAA Tournament scoots just out of reach — change this one outcome here, a different result there. Even in a best-case scenario, the Hawkeyes’ postseason wiggle room is never going to be wide. A late-February series could prove just as vital as an early-May weekend.

So in treks another Iowa bunch for the 2022 season. It's a blend of high-end Division I transfers, eye-popping freshmen and a veteran nucleus who’s done learning baseball lessons through pain.

Stressing the NCAA Tournament’s importance doesn’t happen through blatant conversations the way many outsiders envision. The cohesive culture Rick Heller has developed entering his ninth season takes care of that inadvertently. But what has unfolded recently — not just Iowa’s regional misses, but the excruciating fashion in which they’ve arrived — has the urgency cranked up with opening day a week away.

“We’ve all sat in that room a few times in my career and watched ourselves not get selected to play in a regional," said catcher Brett McCleary, one of only three Hawkeyes on this year’s roster who has been through all the near misses in 2018, 2019 and 2021.

“It's fuel. ... We’ve had teams that we believe deserved (a regional spot) or could definitely compete with those opportunities. This older group definitely knows how that feels. And we’ll take that and run with it.”   

MORE: How Brody Brecht plans to balance his lofty baseball and football goals at Iowa

Iowa players huddle up during the Hawkeyes' NCAA college baseball media day, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, at the University of Iowa Indoor Practice Facility in Iowa City, Iowa.

Discussions centering on a better ending this season aren’t created from thin air. This Iowa team actually has more preseason buzz than several editions before it. For starters, D1Baseball and Baseball America both have the Hawkeyes pegged as a postseason squad in 2022. That hasn’t been the case in most, if not all, the years since Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament and made its last regional appearance in 2017.

Pivotal transfer portal finds like Adam Mazur (South Dakota State), Connor Schultz (Butler) and Will Christopherson (Michigan State) — along with the usual junior college haul — have added veteran voices in a hurry. Staggering speeds from freshmen pitchers like Brody Brecht and Marcus Morgan have generated instant buzz rarely seen in the Heller era. Experienced bats and a deep backend of the bullpen round out a roster loaded with potential breakout candidates.

MORE: Iowa baseball falls painfully short of ticket to 2021 NCAA Tournament

A daunting schedule — one Heller called maybe the toughest in Iowa baseball history — blends anticipation for marquee matchups with excitement at the chance for resume-building wins. But a tough slate only benefits Iowa if wins come with it. Back-to-back weekends against UC Irvine (March 11-13) and Texas Tech (March 18-20) — two teams ranked in D1Baseball’s preseason poll — accentuate the nonconference grind Iowa is about to endure.

“You want to play those big-named teams and play those big games,” veteran infielder Izaya Fullard said. "And those are what ultimately give you a chance to make it to Omaha. Knowing the schedule we have and the opportunities we’re going to get, that just makes it even more exciting. We’re all excited to go to these tournaments and play these really great teams and give ourselves a chance to hear our name called (on Selection Monday).”

For the first time since Heller’s second season in 2015, no one on the Hawkeyes’ roster has experienced that Selection Monday jubilation at Iowa. The final few names from the lauded 2017 squad ended their collegiate careers last spring, putting everyone in the same boat as far as May emotions go. Any conversation with any current Iowa player regarding the NCAA Tournament ends with sour memories.

The time for the Hawkeyes to change that is now.

“Everything comes back to that,” said pitcher Cam Baumann, a super-senior like McCleary. “That’s pretty much one of the main reasons why I cam back this year, too, is because I haven’t had the opportunity to make a regional, win a Big Ten championship. I want to do that and accomplish those goals. This team, for sure, has the ability to do that over this year.”        

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.