Looking For a Ring

Feb. 20, 2007

As it is every year since Jack Dahm took over as the University of Iowa’s head baseball coach, the goal for the team is to win the Big Ten Conference championship. After a disappointing 2006 campaign, finishing 23-33 overall and 12-20 in the conference, the Hawkeyes appear to have both the experience and talent to get back into the upper half of the conference and make a run at the Big Ten title.

During the off-season, the team recommitted themselves, are physically stronger and have developed mental toughness.

“The number one thing is that the work ethic of our players has been fantastic,” said Dahm. “I’m not sure we could have gotten more out of our summer, fall or winter seasons.”

In the infield, the Hawkeyes are loaded with experienced players. At the top is shortstop Jason White, who began feeling right at home last year as he made the transition back to his original position after earning all-Big Ten honors as a second baseman. Aside from his steady defensive skills, he will be relied upon to set the table for the Hawkeye hitters, where he looks to revert back to his 2005 form at the plate.

Centerfielder Travis Sweet and third baseman Kevin Hoef will bat behind White. Last season, the three combined for 52 stolen bases and will look to increase that number this season. Dahm is looking to put pressure on teams and having three of the faster players in the Big Ten will allow him to do it.

“We call base running the `No Fear Zone,'” said Dahm. “What I mean is, I want our guys to run. I want to put pressure on our opponents.”

“We call base running the `No Fear Zone.’ What I mean is, I want our guys to run. I want to put pressure on our opponents.”
Jack Dahm

Along with speed at the top of the lineup, the team also has base stealing threats at the bottom of the order with Justin Toole and Caleb Curry.

Like White, catcher Dusty Napoleon is looking to have a breakout season. This year he’s already taken a leadership role and his work ethic has been rubbing off on his teammates.

“I learned a lot last year,” said Napoleon. “I struggled and I learned from that. This summer I stayed back and got stronger, which I feel has prepared me for this year.”

Napoleon, along with first baseman Wes Freie and designated hitter Brian Burmester, will be relied on in the middle of the order. At times last year, Freie showed why the coaching staff recruited him, but like many freshmen, he began to struggle. Although Dahm doesn’t expect to see anyone become a big homerun threat, he does expect to see plenty of extra base hits.

“You won’t see us being a team that relies on home runs the way this ballpark is set up,” said Dahm. “Playing baseball here in the spring time with the wind blowing in so much is tough.”

By playing small ball, the team will be relying on what is its biggest unknown. The pitching staff isn’t senior laden as it was last year, but the talented arms are there.

Through tireless work during the off-season, David Conroy has already solidified himself as the staff’s number one starter.

“Of the guys here right now I feel like I’m the best,” said Conroy. “Personally I feel like I’m the best in the conference right now too so I’m ready to step up and be number one for this program and hopefully be number one in this league.”

After struggling late last season, he admitted that he wasn’t having fun. He wasn’t happy with how he was playing. Early on during the summer he was able to change both and he’s been on point ever since.

Sophomores Steve Turnbull and Nick Erdman are slated to start the season as the number two and three starters, but Casey O’Rourke and Danny Bales will be looking to change that. O’Rourke is coming back after missing last season with testicular cancer and is still trying to get back to 100 percent.

“At the beginning I think they just want me to get in there, give me a chance and see what I can do,” said O’Rourke. “I think there’s a lot of unknowns right now. Is my arm going to bounce back? How am I going to be able to take being out there in a game situation?”

Bales on the other hand has missed his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes after tearing his labrum. The range of motion in his arm isn’t completely back, but the velocity he had in high school is.

“The last few weeks my arm has been coming back,” said Bales. “The fastball is poppin’ nice and easy so I’m not scared of doing anything again. I’m ready to go.”

The biggest loss from 2006 was losing two-time all-Big Ten closer Tim Gudex. Stepping into the role is Mike Schurz, a transfer from Radford University, who the coaching staff believes will fit right in.

“We think Mike’s got the right mentality,” said Dahm. “He’s goofy enough to be a closer. He throws anywhere from 86-91 [mph] with good sink, and has a good slider and changeup.”

Although the season looks like it could amount to be a promising one, Dahm still expects struggles early on. The early stretch includes seven-of-eight games against teams who qualified for last year’s NCAA tournament. With a tough early schedule, the hope is to be ready once the Big Ten season starts March 30 at Ohio State.

Josh Mitchell, Iowa Sports Information