From Walk-On to Iowa's Heartbeat

May 2, 2013

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s May edition of Hawk Talk Monthly, the UI athletics department’s online publication.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Redshirt junior Keith Brand has made a habit of proving doubters wrong during his baseball career at the University of Iowa. After all, he was just supposed to be a bullpen catcher.

“I came in as a walk-on, not having any role whatsoever,” said Brand, a catcher from Naperville, Ill. “I don’t think anybody thought I was going to play, let alone make the team.

“When I first got here, all I wanted was an opportunity. I wanted to get on the team, give myself a chance, and I knew I could work hard enough to get in that lineup eventually.”

Brand found his way to Iowa after playing American Legion summer ball for Mitch Stewart following his prep career at Glenbrook North High School. Stewart, who was UI head coach Jack Dahm’s high school football coach, urged Dahm to give Brand a chance.

“Coach Stewart called me and told me Keith had something special about him,” said Dahm. “He told me to give him an opportunity.”

When Brand came to campus for walk-on tryouts, he couldn’t get the ball out of the hitting cage. He put in the work, paid his dues, and by the end of the 2010 season, Dahm said he was the most improved player on the team.

“Coming in (as a freshman), I saw a bunch of guys more talented than me. I knew I had to work extra hard so I could fulfill most of my potential.”
UI redshirt junior Keith Brand

“Coming in (as a freshman), I saw a bunch of guys more talented than me,” said Brand. “I knew I had to work extra hard so I could fulfill most of my potential.”

The following season, Dahm began to show his faith in Brand. When the Hawkeyes lost catching depth via a transfer, it left the team with two catchers and Brand on the roster. Turned out that was enough.

“When Dallas Burke transferred, we were thinking, `Do we need to get a third catcher?'” said Dahm. “We had (Dan) Sheppard and (Tyson) Blaser, but we said we trusted Keith with the way he got after it.”

A month into the 2011 season, it was Brand that was thrown into game action during Iowa’s spring break trip in San Antonio, Texas. With Sheppard already sidelined, Blaser woke up one morning with an arm injury, forcing him out of the lineup. It was the opportunity Brand was waiting for.

“Everyone was freaking out because I didn’t have that much experience and I was just a walk-on that was a bullpen catcher six months ago,” said Brand. “I ended up getting the go-ahead hit in the ninth, and I was just fortunate to have that opportunity.”

Brand went on to start 17 and play in 20 games as a redshirt freshman, hitting .280 with 12 RBIs and 11 runs scored. When the 2012 season rolled around, it was Sheppard listed as the Hawkeye starter. Brand still played in 27 games, finishing with a .211 average with 10 RBIs and 10 runs scored.

Leading up to the 2013 season, it was much the same. Dahm named Sheppard the starter heading into the season and highly-touted freshman Blake Hickman was the back-up. Brand was “2a.”

“It’s a little frustrating, but it’s a motivator too,” said Brand. “I believe in myself and in my talents, and I am a guy that is going to go out and compete every day. If I worry about what I can control and how much effort and competitiveness I put in every day, then I know I would work my way into the lineup.”

After seeing limited action during the first two weeks of the 2013 season, Brand worked his way back into the starting lineup. He is hitting .260 with 14 runs and 13 RBIs, while also reaching base 16 times via hit-by-pitches.

Much like his first collegiate game, Brand has continued his knack for providing the clutch hit. He is batting .320 with runners in scoring position and .500 with runners on second and third with less than two outs this season.

“When I go up there, I am finding a way to get it done,” he said. “I am going to grind out at-bats and not give any at-bats away. I live for those big moments. Hitting when you’re up 10-0 is fun, but I would rather be up there hitting with the game on the line in the ninth inning with runners in scoring position.”

Dahm says Brand has worked his way into much more than a bullpen catcher through his competitive nature, grittiness and hard work.

Keith Brand is going to fight for you,” said Dahm. “He is the heartbeat of this team.”