IOWA CITY — Everybody loves a winner.
In Rick Heller’s first couple seasons as head baseball coach at the University of Iowa, you probably would have had a half-dozen to a dozen folks show up for the team’s annual Media Day.
But as Heller approaches the fifth year of his Hawkeye turnaround, the number of media members in attendance Thursday afternoon reached the 20 to 25 mark. The attention on the program has increased to go along with the accomplishments.
And don’t forget about the expectations, too.
“The next step is definitely winning that regional and seeing if we can host a super regional,” senior catcher Tyler Cropley said. “That’s the goal. I think we can get to Omaha. I think we have the talent, we’ve got the drive. Our indoor practices have been really, really good. It’s going to be fun to get outside and start playing.”
Iowa does that next weekend when it heads to Florida for season-opening games against Toledo, Oakland (Mich.) and Old Dominion. The Hawkeyes are coming off a 39-22 season that saw them win the Big Ten Conference tournament and advance to a NCAA regional.
They upset host Houston in the first game of that regional before dropping close games to Texas A&M and Houston. A successful trip to the World University Games in Taiwan followed late last summer and gave everyone a head start on 2018.
There’s a ton of positivity right now, and it’s warranted. Heller has led Iowa to four consecutive 30-win seasons.
Now everyone figures it’s time to take that next step.
“The sky’s the limit, man,” said junior outfielder Robert Neustrom, one of the preseason favorites for Big 10 Player of the Year.
“We just basically have to keep pushing forward,” Heller said. “One, with our confidence and belief that it can be done. The guys returning saw how close we were at having a chance to win that regional last year. It was that close ... I just think them having that experience will help us continue to grow the program. Then with the guys coming in, they are hearing it not just from me, but from the guys on the team who were actually there. It’s just a matter of us being consistent enough to get to a regional consistently.”
There were a number of personnel hits for the Hawkeyes. Power-hitting first baseman Jake Adams, shortstop Mason McCoy and pitchers Ryan Erickson and Nick Gallagher all were taken in last June’s MLB Draft and began their professional careers.
Pitcher C.J. Eldred signed a free-agent contract with the Kansas City Royals in the offseason, a surprising development for a kid who pitched one game last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Eldred’s dad, Cal, is now K.C.’s pitching coach.
“We lost a lot off last year’s team, and everybody knows that,” Heller said. “Some really big losses. Had we had Gallagher and C.J. (back), I probably would have told you ‘Heck, yeah, we’ve got a good chance to get to (a regional) ... But I don’t think those guys being gone eliminates that. It’s just going to be a little bit tougher.”
Neustrom hit .310 last season and has the potential to be a high MLB draft pick. He’ll be the catalyst for Iowa offensively, which also returns all-Big Ten catcher Cropley, all-Big Ten freshman outfielder Ben Norman, outfielder Chris Whelan and second baseman Mitchell Boe, among others.
Starting pitching is a question mark, though Heller hopes multiple freshmen and touted junior college recruit Brady Schanuel will eventually step up and make that less of a question mark. Schanuel has a bit of an ouchy arm right now.
Redshirt junior Nick Allgeyer and junior right-hander Cole McDonald are expected to get starts in Iowa’s first two games. The bullpen should be a strength with guys like lefty Kyle Shimp and righty Zach Daniels (a Cedar Rapids Kennedy grad) around.
Daniels could slide into the rotation if needed.
“Each year I’ve been here, we have gotten better as a program,” Daniels said. “So the expecations are definitely high. We’ll take it game by game, and see how things go.” Most experts predict Nebraska and Indiana to fight it out for regular-season Big Ten supremacy. But five years of Heller-ball has shown everyone not to discount these Hawkeyes.
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“That’s what we’re pushing for. To get the program to a point where we can consistently count on getting to a regional each and every year,” Heller said.
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