CORONAVIRUS

Iowa baseball: A promising season suddenly ends, with so many questions about the future now at forefront

Iowa Hawkeyes outfielder Ben Norman (9) slides into home against Kansas during their NCAA baseball game at Duane Banks F
Iowa Hawkeyes outfielder Ben Norman (9) slides into home against Kansas during their NCAA baseball game at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Things were going well. Really, really well.

The University of Iowa baseball team took a couple of home games March 10 and 11 from Kansas.

That improved the Hawkeyes’ record to 10-5. They’d won seven of their last eight, including back-to-back thrillers over top-20 teams from North Carolina and Duke.

This club was doing that proverbial rounding-into-shape thing as it prepared for a 5 p.m. flight west March 12 for a three-game weekend series against Cal State-Northridge. That flight was suddenly canceled about 1 p.m. that day.

“Then two hours later, the season was over,” Iowa Coach Rick Heller said.

The NCAA suddenly canceled all spring sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Heller said, Iowa and everyone else in every sport went from going 100 miles per hour to zero.

Just like that. To say it was shocking would be the understatement of the century.

“When I had to tell the team that day that it was over, that was awful,” Heller said. “I haven’t had to give many worse (speeches) in my career. When they dropped the program at UNI, that felt very similar to that. Not as bad, but bad. Kids crying, hugging, it was awful. We’re not the only ones going through it, we will get through it, and hopefully something positive comes out of it.”

Now Heller and the rest wait.

Will the NCAA grant an extra year of athletic eligibility for anyone who wants one? If so, how does that affect scholarships?

College baseball programs at the Division I level get 11.7 total, with up to 27 players being able to share in that 11.7. Teams are limited to 35 total players.

“I’m still worried that (eligibility) won’t be given,” Heller said. “It might not. Once that (NCAA) committee gets together, and they see how many pieces of the puzzle have to go this way and that way, how the scholarships are going to have to be adjusted.

“You can’t just say you are going to give eligibility back and expect the coaches to maintain the 35 on a roster and 27 on scholarship and all that. You’ve got, say, 10 guys coming in to replace your 10 seniors. Then you’ve also given money away to guys coming in to replace guys you think are going to be drafted and signed (professionally). Baseball is difficult every day trying to manage that, with so many uncontrollables.”

Pro ball throws another potential wrench into this equation. Major League Baseball doesn’t know if and when it will have its annual draft and doesn’t know if and when it will have a season or a minor league season.

Heller said Iowa has pro ball types in seniors Austin Martin (catcher), Grant Judkins (pitcher) and Ben Norman (outfielder) and redshirt senior Grant Leonard (pitcher).

“If they get drafted, they are going to sign,” Heller said. “But if there is no draft, they’d love to come back. Everyone is just kind of waiting and seeing what is going to happen. We’re not getting too far ahead of the cart with no ruling at this point.”

Heller said college summer leagues (such as the Northwoods League, which has a team in Waterloo) have been contacting him regularly about players coming to play if those leagues are allowed to have seasons. With so little of the college campaign having been played, everyone is going to want to play as much as they can.

Recruiting is yet another piece to this crazy puzzle. Commitments and signings already have been made, with Heller saying Iowa being “deep into the sophomore class” when it comes to looking for future prospects.

But spring high school seasons aren’t being played, nor are junior college seasons.

There are so many variables in play here, so many things to think about. Right at the top of that list, of course, is the 2020 season that never was finished.

“We were super happy with the progress we were making,” Heller said. “We played well at times, really well at times ... It was coming together. I felt really good about where we were. We were playing well in all phases of our game.

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“We were in a really good place, thought this team had a chance to be really good if we could show a high level of consistency day in and day out. That was the message from August. The guys just started showing really steady improvement, and that was showing on the field.”

Then they literally were taken off the field.

“Not being able to play for anyone who loves to play is the worst thing,” Heller said. “That’s why they’re out there.”

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

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