24: Toole has all the tools on the diamond

Sept. 23, 2008

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 7, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2008-09 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

by Sean Neugent

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Justin Toole has had the same dream since the first day he picked up a baseball as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That dream is to be a major league baseball player. His vision could become reality with another big campaign in 2008 for the University of Iowa baseball team.

Toole was a sports icon at Lewis Central High School. It was there where he blew away competition on local diamonds with not only his bat, but with his stellar defense and pitching. Toole racked up plenty of awards during high school — he was named 2005 BCA/Louisville Slugger Iowa Player of the Year and the 2005 Bob Feller Class 4A Pitcher of the Year. He was also a three-time first-team all-state, and two-time all-state Super Team member. He was a four-time member of the all-conference, all-district, all-city and all-western teams.

In high school, Toole carried a career .420 batting average with 102 RBI and 103 stolen bases. He also amassed a 35-5 career pitching record with a 0.88 ERA, 432 strikeouts and 15 shutouts. Not bad for a player who was recruited as a middle infielder.

Toole was a multi-sport athlete at Lewis Central. He played wide receiver, cornerback and kicker in football and point guard in basketball. He was named all-conference and all-city in both sports. Toole was also an all-city selection as a goalkeeper in soccer.

“My dad was my high school baseball coach,” Toole said. “I loved playing everything else in high school, but that was more fun than any of the other sports. Growing up around the game with my dad being a coach, he was always there to help me out, whether it was playing soft toss or catch in the backyard. In the back of my mind I always knew I would be a baseball player.”

“We recruited him as an infielder that we felt could also help us on the mound,” UI head coach Jack Dahm said. “He has a tremendous curveball, so we knew he could come in and help us on the mound. We always saw him more as an infielder. He has evolved into one of the best infielders in the Big Ten and one of the best in the Midwest. He has worked so hard. The thing we really like about him is that we knew he would continue to grow, get stronger and he has a tremendous work ethic. Also, the fact that he is the son of a baseball coach and the fact he is a relentless worker and has a passion for the game.”

“I definitely want to win a Big Ten championship. I think we have the guys on the team to do that. We have the talent to do well and make it to regionals. It’s one of those things where once you get there, anything can happen. We just try to go out and play every day, do well and everything will fall into place.”
UI senior Justin Toole

Toole has played a versatile roll for the Hawkeyes, filling in at shortstop, second base and pitcher. As a freshman he saw valuable playing time as a pitcher, coming on in relief to hurl 22 innings. He had the third-best ERA on the team (2.86) with a 1-2 record and 17 strikeouts. Toole came out of his shell as a sophomore and made hitting look like a breeze with a .367 batting average in 147 at-bats. That included 11 doubles, two triples — his first and only homerun of his career — and 34 RBI. He had a save against Fresno State, but his arm would be limited to 2.1 innings of work during the year.

“His development as an infielder is why he doesn’t pitch anymore,” Dahm said. “He just kept getting better and better. We needed him out at second base as a sophomore — we needed him out there all the time. We felt like we would be a weaker ball club if we took Justin off second base and put him on the mound. He did come in and get a big save early in the season and we let him pitch one more time a little later on. He just developed into such a good everyday player for us that we didn’t want to take him off the field. Also, the wear and tear of being a pitcher is tough for an infielder. I think he is a natural second baseman from the fact as far as his arm strength goes to allow him to play at the next level.”

As a junior, Toole struck even more fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. He compiled 87 hits, 15 doubles, four triples, 24 stolen bases, 49 RBI and a whopping .395 batting average while playing both shortstop and second base. The nation found out just who Toole was last season when he set an Iowa single-season record with a 25-game consecutive hitting streak — the longest in the Big Ten and seventh-longest in the country. Shortstop is where Dahm anticipates Toole playing next season.

“One of the things I told him last year is don’t worry about numbers,” Dahm said. “He put up such great stats as a sophomore. He batted ninth as a sophomore because we had such a good offensive team. Last year, he was hitting in the first, second or third spot in the order. I told him to just be a very solid hitter and very unselfish. He ended up putting up even better numbers. He is always doing what is best for the ball club, whether he was hitting behind runners or laying bunts down.”

Just like high school, Toole continues to place more honors on his resume. In 2008, he was named all-region, third team all-Big Ten, and was an academic all-Big Ten honoree while majoring in psychology and sports studies. Toole was also named third team all-Big Ten as a sophomore.

Toole and his University of Iowa teammates will host Iowa Central on Friday, Sept. 26, at 6 p.m., in an exhibition game.

Every good baseball player grew up watching the sport, looking at their baseball hero’s every move and hoping that one day that would be them. Toole’s hero is New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Dahm, however, considers Toole more of a David Eckstein-type of player.

“I just like watching Jeter play and how he goes out there every day and gets after it,” Toole said. “I always kind of model his approach at the plate. He likes to go the other way and that is always something I have been successful with.”

“I would end up comparing Justin to David Eckstein,” Dahm said. “He has a high motor, always has energy, always going and getting the most out of his ability. Derek Jeter coming out of high school was a first round draft pick, he was blessed with talent — speed, arm strength, size, swing. Justin is a kid that wasn’t highly recruited out of high school and has had to work for everything. He is getting everything he possibly can out of his body.”

Dahm has a successful track record of getting his players drafted and he believes that Toole will have an opportunity of making it to the big leagues. He has always put the team first and this year will be no different. Toole is hungry and he yearns for is a Big Ten Championship. He will do everything in his power to get the Hawkeyes to that level and leave with a trophy.

“I definitely want to win a Big Ten championship,” Toole said. “I think we have the guys on the team to do that. We have the talent to do well and make it to regionals. It’s one of those things where once you get there, anything can happen. We just try to go out and play every day, do well and everything will fall into place.”

“You always want to give opportunities to the players who deserve them,” Dahm said. “I think Justin is very deserving. It’s a long way until June and the draft. Hopefully what our guys are learning is the more team success we have, the more awards you get. We are really trying to keep our guys with team approach — the draft will take care of itself. The only thing that Justin and infielder Kevin Hoef and all of our players can control is their effort every day in practice and get better — the effort they give us in the game and that unselfish approach. If you do that, kids that deserve a chance, will get a chance. I think Justin has a chance at playing at the next level.”

Another successful run during his senior year could have scouts foaming at the mouth to draft Toole and get him started in the minor leagues.

“Ultimately that is everyone’s dream,” said Toole, of playing major league baseball. “When you grow up playing baseball, that’s the dream you always have. It’s always in the back of your mind, but you try not to think about it. If it happens, it happens. If not, you just leave it all out there and let it go.”