IOWA CITY — Rick Heller wants to keep talent on the Iowa baseball roster close to home.
Over the past four years, the head coach has been increasing the volume of players from the Hawkeye state on his team. This season the number sits at 21 — the most in at least the last 10 seasons.
“That was the goal when I got the job,” Heller said. “If we’re going to ever get to Omaha and compete for a national championship like we’d like to, it has to be with the best Iowa players.”
Heller is going to use as many players as possible from around the state, from high schools and junior colleges.
It’s a declaration of support for baseball at all levels in Iowa, the quality of which Heller was quick to bring up. He even went a bit further with the community colleges, calling them among the best in the nation in terms of churning out good players.
Iowa has found a number of quality pieces doing this, especially on the mound. The Hawkeyes’ best two pitchers this season — C.J. Eldred and Nick Gallagher — aren’t even 35 minutes away from where they played high school ball.
Eldred hails from Mount Vernon, Gallagher went to Iowa City West.
Both juniors, Eldred started his career at Indiana before transferring to Iowa. Gallagher burst onto the scene for the Hawkeyes during the 2015 campaign.
After a solid season last year, the confidence is high.
“I think we have a chance to be one of the best 1-2 punches in the country,” Eldred said. “I really do.”
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There certainly seems to be an abundance of solid pitching in Iowa and Heller has been stockpiling. Of the 21 Iowas, 14 are pitchers. It’s important to have an appropriate number of arms on the team, but there are only seven non-Iowan pitchers on the roster.
It’s not, however, simply just grabbing anyone.
“I think the big story,” Heller said, “is that the right ones are coming to Iowa.”
Heller’s recruiting classes have been up and down since he’s taken over the Hawkeyes. He missed out on an excellent class in 2014, though with the long transition between former head coach Jack Dahm and Heller, that isn’t exactly surprising.
It did hurt the Hawkeyes, though. The top four players in the state were all ranked in Perfect Game’s top 200 and any one would have been a welcome addition to the team.
Things have shifted since. The freshman class of 2015 didn’t have quite the rankings love draped around it, but Iowa locked up seven of the top eight recruits in Iowa.
It’s been more of the same since and has put a distinctly Iowa vibe around the team. Winning, the Hawks believe, is on the horizon. After making the NCAA tournament during the 2015 season, there was a sense Heller might be able to do something special with this program.
There’s already a chip on the Hawkeyes' shoulder from playing in the Big Ten and being from the north. While the recent warm snap might not show it, the normally cold temperatures are very much part of a larger stigma.
“You hear over and over that it’s cold up there and the baseball sucks up there,” Eldred said. “I think that can kind of tick us off sometimes and it’s like, ‘hey, we can hang with you guys.’”
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Heller is putting together a group of like-minded baseball players and organizing the program around what the state of Iowa has to offer.
It’s a unique and different approach to building a competitor in this environment and he knows it’s never going to be simple.
But, he thinks, there is something cooking at Duane Banks Field.
“It’s fun, just being local guys, being here,” Gallagher said. “We grew up Hawkeye fans and this is just a dream come true.”
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