OMAHA, Neb. — The bar has been raised for Iowa baseball.
A sixth-straight 30-win season and sixth consecutive appearance in the Big Ten tournament highlighted the growth of Rick Heller’s program.
Until the final two weekends of the regular season, a return to the NCAA Tournament was well within Iowa’s grasp.
Because some of the goals came up just a bit short, there was a sense of disappointment after Friday night’s 3-0 loss to Minnesota at TD Ameritrade Park that ended Iowa’s season at 31-24.
Coaching changes, injuries and replacing players chosen in the Major League Baseball draft tested Iowa’s mettle this season.
“I’m happy with how the guys competed all year,” Heller said. “It will go down in my memories as a team that overcame as many obstacles as I’ve coached with coaching changes injuries, guys in the draft. They fought. This group I will remember fondly for a long, long time.”
Nine seniors and other leaders provided the team with guidance throughout all of the turbulence.
“It started with really great leadership,” Heller said. “The seniors and the captains, those guys were outstanding.”
With the leadership in place, Iowa kept moving forward.
“They’re driven to not let us take a step back, even though all of us knew the situation we were facing was going to be tough, they kept getting better every day,” Heller said.
Freshman pitcher Duncan Davitt found the seniors to be able leaders.
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“I didn’t know them a whole long time, but they made you feel at home,” Davitt said. “There was just a lot of teaching moments about baseball, travel, adversity. They’re all-around good guys. I learned a lot of life lessons from them.”
Iowa showed flashes in going 10-3 against top-30 opponents this season. The Hawkeyes won six straight series, including wins over then-No.23 Illinois, Nebraska and then-No. 18 California-Irvine.
It also struggled mightily late in the season in dropping a series at home against Michigan State — which didn’t make the eight-team field in Omaha — and being swept at Maryland, which was 10th in the league standings coming into the final weekend of Big Ten play.
“This season we proved that we can play with anyone,” said junior Ben Norman. “We won a bunch against ranked teams, won a great series. We just had some lapses where we didn’t play great. We did set ourselves up to achieve all of our goals, just toward the end we fell off a little bit. We just had to finish stronger.”
The coaching staff had an unexpected shakeup shortly before the season started when pitching coach Desi Druschel and hitting coach Joe Migliaccio left for positons in the New York Yankees organization.
Robin Lund took over as hitting coach and Tom Gorzelanny took over as pitching coach in late January.
“Tom Gorzleanny and Robin Lind coming into the situation they had to come into did an excellent job,” Heller said.
One area Heller noted that will be looked at in the offseason is pitching. Iowa’s starters struggled down the stretch, while the bullpen also had its share of tough moments late.
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“Our starting pitching hit the wall the last several games,” Heller said. “We were a little shorthanded. Maybe that had something to do with it. Same thing with our bullpen guys. They weren’t nearly as sharp as they were earlier in the season down the stretch. That’s something we need to try to figure out and anything we need to do better to not allow that to happen.”
Even with all of the noise going on around them, the Hawkeyes continued to show the resiliency that has become a hallmark of the program under Heller’s leadership.
“We didn’t quit,” Heller said. “We fought to the end.”