116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – Joel Vaske faced a tough decision after last year’s shortened season.
The Kirkwood sophomore had the option of returning for a third year or moving on to a four-year program. Eagles Coach Todd Rima presented the possibilities and Vaske chose to stay, wanting to leave on his own terms and not forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Coach Rima,” said Vaske, who committed to Southeast Missouri State in December. “When the season was done, he pulled me into his office, sat me down and said these are the schools that are going to be coming after you and these are the places we think you can go. You have the right to go and leave and we’ll be happy and proud of you or you can come back and work your tail off like you have for two years and see where it can take you.
“Ever since I’ve got back on campus it’s just been the mentality to work hard to get better.”
The decision has paid dividends for Vaske and Kirkwood. He tallied three hits, including his second inside-the-park home run this season, and five RBIs in the nightcap of a doubleheader sweep against Marshalltown Community College. The Eagles won, 6-0 and 10-4, at home Wednesday, extending their win streak to 10 straight.
Vaske leads Kirkwood with 14 home runs, 67 RBIs and 14 doubles. He is second on the team with 65 total hits and a .401 batting average. His 54 runs is third.
“I’m really happy for him,” Rima said. “He had a tough decision to make and he thought it was best to come back and develop for one more year. It has worked out. He couldn’t have played better so far and going to a great program. He’s excited about that.
“We’re always glad when it works out, especially when it works out for a kid who works as hard as he does.”
Rima praised his work ethic and love of the game. Both were molded by the former Dyersville Beckman prep’s roots. His father, Brian, provided a strong example for that work ethic.
“He works his tail off to give me the opportunity to come down here to play baseball,” Vaske said. “He works a lot of hours in the summer at a job that is hard on him and he still comes home to work every single day on the farm. I have to tip my cap and give credit to where it is due. He’s pushed me a long way.”
The Blazers have a strong baseball tradition, producing a number of college players. Vaske has been surrounded by many.
“It’s built into you,” Vaske said. “It’s great baseball and a passion for it. It’s just been around me for a long time.”
Vaske has played a key role in the team’s hot streak. During the 10-game span, he has batted .488 with 20 hits and .580 on-base percentage. He has driven in 27 runs. Rima said Vaske has put himself in All-American consideration.
“Vaske is locked in,” Rima said. “He’s a student of the game. He’s a guy that puts in an unbelievable amount of work. He studies it and is very coachable. He’s having a great year for us. We feel good when he’s at the plate.”
In the nightcap, Vaske put Kirkwood on the board with an RBI single in the third. He added an RBI double in the three-run fifth that helped tie the game, 4-4. Vaske stepped to the plate in the sixth, putting the Eagles ahead for good.
Vaske drilled a sinking line drive and the ball skipped under the glove of the right fielder. Vaske was hustling out of the batter’s box, originally thinking double, but knew he could make it around to chase Josh Fitzgerald and Trevor Burkhart home.
“I saw him dive for it,” Vaske said. “I was able to get all the way around.”
Vaske had a walk-off three-run inside-the-park home run in a 13-12 victory over Indian Hills on April 18. Teammates razzed him about the rare feat not counting but no denying a second.
“We just have to look at each other and laugh about it,” Vaske said. “It is crazy the way the game of baseball is and it happened twice. Usually, that doesn’t happen. The fact it happened twice is kind of funny. I think it defines the game of baseball very well”
Kirkwood improved to 30-17 overall and 26-10 in the ICCAC. Tucker Christensen and Caleb Banowetz combined for a shutout, while Josh Fitzgerald and Andrew Nord hit homes runs for Kirkwood in the opener. Nord added four RBIs. Fitzgerald and Burkhart each had three hits in the nightcap and Kyle Moeder contributed two hits and two RBIs for Kirkwood, which has won 22 of the last 26 games.
“We’re playing well right now,” Rima said. “I think our guys just stuck with it. We struggled a little bit early, but we also knew we were going to play a really tough stretch of games. We knew this thing could get going if they kept working and they’ve done that. Really proud. They just trusted the process and it worked for them.”