College Baseball

Iowa baseball: Michigan's College World Series run inspires Hawkeyes to think big

Iowa picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten

Iowa's Izaya Fullard rounds the bases after hitting a home run during a home game last season. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazett
Iowa's Izaya Fullard rounds the bases after hitting a home run during a home game last season. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa? Why not Iowa?

That was infielder Izaya Fullard’s reaction watching Michigan do what it did last season. The Wolverines didn’t only make the College World Series, they made it to the best-of-three championship series, losing the deciding third game to Vanderbilt.

Big Ten Conference teams, northern teams aren’t supposed to get that far.

“I pretty much watched all of their games from Super Regionals through the College World Series,” Fullard said during Thursday afternoon’s Iowa baseball media day. “It was honestly exciting to the see the Big Ten kind of get some publicity. For them to get to do it I think kind of opened the door for a lot of other Big Ten teams. That whole time I’m thinking why not us? You win your regional, then it’s a three-game series to get to the College World Series.”

So why not the Big Ten again? Why not these Hawkeyes?

“I think that just showed our conference is becoming one of the stronger conferences in the country,” said Iowa outfielder Ben Norman. “We say if they can do it, we can do it. They kind of made it seem even more reachable for teams throughout the Big Ten.”

Iowa’s program has reached the point where it is a consistent winner that always gets to the Big Ten Tournament. It’s happened in all six of head coach Rick Heller’s seasons.

You get to the Big Ten Tournament, you’ve got a chance to win that and automatically get to NCAA regional play. Even if you don’t win the conference tourney, you could still get to regionals if you have a good enough record.

You win regionals, you go to Super Regionals. You win Super Regionals, you go to the College World Series. You get to Omaha, you’ve got a chance to get to the championship series.

You get there, you could win it all. Michigan showed Iowa and everyone else in the Big Ten that it can be done.

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“I think what it did was validate what all of us in the league already knew,” said Heller. “Hats off to Michigan and Coach (Erik) Bakich for what they did. It wasn’t an easy road for them, either. They played extremely well. It really sent a message nationally, I think, where our league is right now.”

Iowa finished 31-24 last season, beating 10 ranked opponents. But injuries to the pitching staff contributed to a late semi-collapse, with the Hawkeyes losing seven of their last eight games.

Heller thinks this club has more pitching depth and more depth overall. Its two leading hitters from last season (Fullard and catcher Austin Martin) return, as does ace reliever Grant Leonard, who set a school record with 14 saves last season.

Starting pitching should be fine with guys like senior Grant Judkins around. Sophomore Jack Dreyer is back from injury and should slide into the weekend rotation.

The season begins next weekend in Florida against Kent State, St. Joseph’s and Pittsburgh. The home opener is scheduled for March 3 against Grand View.

Baseball America has picked Iowa for fifth place in the Big Ten. You get the impression from talking to players that the prediction is too low.

“We know we’ve got the talent to do it,” Norman said. “We put in the work, put in the effort, all that stuff. We know that whoever we play, we can compete with them. We’re not going to be afraid or scared of anyone. The nine we put out there can play against the nine they put out there.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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