June 16, 2015
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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s June edition of Hawk Talk Monthly presented by Transamerica.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa head baseball coach Rick Heller smiles when recalling the magical ride of 2015.
It was a year when the Hawkeyes returned to relevancy on the national stage, earning its first ranking since 1990, and winning 41 games — the second most in program history. Iowa lifted a 43-year-old monkey off its back, winning its first NCAA Tournament game since 1972 and advancing to the Springfield Regional final.
“I am proud of all the guys on this team,” said Heller, who has posted 71 victories in his two seasons in Iowa City. “Their focus and ability to go out over the course of a long season and play great day-in and day-out and win every series except the last one was remarkable. The consistency is what impresses me most.”
The Hawkeyes met for the first time as a team on Aug. 22, 2014, where they laid out lofty team goals. The veteran squad wanted to be playing in June and make a run at a Big Ten regular season championship.
“They were driven to do that, and we did,” said Heller. “They achieved most of the goals that were set in that first meeting.”
“When the Big Ten was the best it has ever been from top to bottom, this team went out and competed at a high level and was able to finish second by five games out of third. Illinois had the year they had, which was amazing, but in most years, we were looking at a Big Ten championship-type team.”
UI head coach Rick Heller
Heller sensed the Hawkeyes could have a special season after rolling through the travel-heavy portion of the schedule. Iowa lost its first game against Kansas State before reeling off nine straight victories and posting a 15-5 record through the first six weeks.
“I was pleased with where we were after the early part of the year when we did our travel,” said Heller. “That’s the part of the year where we travel each weekend, get back late, and do it again the next weekend.
“How we survived that and how well we played, I was fired up and I knew the first weekend at home against Indiana was going to be a test. Were we going to be tired, nervous, or change how we played?”
It was business as usual for the Hawkeyes and a statement was made. Iowa swept No. 19 Indiana, outscoring the Hoosiers, 17-7, in the three-game series. It was the program’s first sweep over a ranked foe in 25 years and vaulted Iowa into the national rankings.
“Indiana had put it on us the last two years,” said Heller. “To sweep that series, that’s when I knew they believed. They went out and took care of business and set the tone right away. At that point, I knew they had it going, and we had a chance to have a special season.”
The Hawkeyes remained in the Big Ten title hunt, battling Illinois, until the final weekend of the season. Iowa won its first seven league series (and a school-record eight dating back to the 2014 season) to finish with a 19-5 league record. The .792 Big Ten winning percentage was the best by a runner-up since the league returned to single division play in 1988.
“When the Big Ten was the best it has ever been from top to bottom, this team went out and competed at a high level and was able to finish second by five games out of third,” said Heller. “Illinois had the year they had, which was amazing, but in most years, we were looking at a Big Ten championship-type team.”
In a season that saw the Hawkeyes post six walk-off victories, Heller’s season highlight came during the final weekend of the season when Iowa beat Oregon, 3-1, to win its first NCAA Tournament game since 1972.
“Knowing that we hadn’t won a regional game since the College World Series team in 1972, that was special to win that first game,” said Heller. “To see our guys compete like they normally play in a regional setting was good.
“That made me feel good to see our guys enjoy it, play the game the right way, and worry about the things they could control. They went out and played good baseball and beat a good team. To get the first regional win in a long time was special.”
After seeing “Hawkeye mania” sweep through the state of Iowa, Heller aims to build the program to a point where it is knocking on the regional door on a yearly basis. He has a vision of leading Iowa to the College World Series in Omaha.
“If you can get to regionals enough, you win the close games, and get hot at the right time, there you are,” said Heller. “That’s where we want to be. We still have room to grow. This was an amazing year and things lined up. We have a lot of work to do, we know that, and we’re going to set out to do the work to this point.”
After being hired as Iowa’s head coach in July, 2013, Heller knows the 2016 season will be a challenge. Iowa loses nine seniors and All-America starting pitcher Blake Hickman. The Hawkeyes will look to reload with a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and among the top 40 nationally by Perfect Game.
“We know next year is going to be tough from a work standpoint,” said Heller. “We’re going to have to take a big group of new players and try to get them to be sophomores by Christmas. I feel this class could be special down the road.”
A special class joins the Hawkeyes coming off a special season. Now Heller can look back, smile, and remember the ride.