When Rick Heller was hired as the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes baseball team, he was tasked with rebuilding a program that had been down in the dumps for quite a while. After making the NCAA Tournament in 1990, Iowa had just four winning seasons after that, and only two since legendary coach Duane Banks retired in 1997.
Now in his fifth season, Heller has completely turned around the Iowa baseball program. Heller has led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons. They were a heartbreaking loss in the 2016 Big Ten Championship away from making the tournament that year as well. Heller and the Hawkeyes are well on its way to a fourth consecutive winning season.
Much like Iowa, the Big Ten has improved as a baseball conference over the past few years. Last season, the Big Ten sent a record five teams to the NCAA Tournament. This season it is shaping up to be an even tougher league.
This season, the schedule did Iowa no favors at the beginning of its conference season. The Hawks started with a home series against perennial contender Indiana, who entered that series 16-4 overall and ranked 11th in the country. It was followed by a road series at Illinois, another nationally ranked team.
Iowa earned a split with Indiana thanks to seven shutout innings of one-hit ball from Brady Schanuel in the second game of a Friday doubleheader. Iowa took two of three at Illinois, and even in defeat looked impressive. In game two of the series, Iowa fell behind 10-0 in the 4th inning. However, the Hawks never gave up, nearly coming all the way back in a 13-12 loss. Iowa scored seven runs in the top of the 9th and even had the go-ahead run at the plate when the last out was recorded.
Following the series in Champaign, the Hawkeyes returned home to face Ohio State. The Buckeyes were again one of the top ranked teams in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes entered the series with a 19-8 overall record, 2-1 in the Big Ten. Iowa proceeded to take 2 of 3 in that series as well, thanks to some terrific pitching.
It looked as though Iowa was going to have some big shoes to fill following the losses of slugging first baseman Jake Adams and ace starter Nick Gallagher to the MLB draft last year.
Yet somehow Heller has made it all work. Iowa is still winning, despite hitting fewer home runs this season as a team than Adams did all of last season. It truly has been a group effort for the Hawkeyes on offense. Robert Neustrom has continued his strong play from last year. Tyler Cropley has also stepped up in a major way this season. Cropley has team-highs with a .352 batting average, 25 RBI, .462 on-base percentage. In addition he has done a great job with the pitching staff this season, as Iowa has a team ERA under 4.00.
On the mound, Brady Schanuel has filled in nicely for Gallagher. Schanuel has compiled a 5-3 record and a 4.14 ERA. The bullpen for Iowa also continues to be a strength. Zach Daniels and Nick Nelsen are the two stalwarts in the bullpen. Daniels is 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA and 2 saves while pitching 23 innings in 11 appearances. Nelsen is 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA and just 4 walks with 18 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched over 12 games.
Despite losing key pieces from an NCAA Tournament team, Iowa continues to play winning baseball. The road to another postseason appearance, however, does not get any easier. After a road series against Nebraska, the next two conference series for Iowa are against the two best teams in the conference. Iowa travels to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota April 20-22. It then returns home to battle Michigan at Duane Banks Field April 27-29.