By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — You could call Rick Heller a creature of habit, so when the University of Iowa’s baseball season was canceled March 12, the head coach had to adjust. It is a work in progress.
A few days later, the University of Iowa Athletics Department encouraged its staff to stay away from campus offices. For Heller, that felt like strike two.
“The first thing when I get up in the morning, I look forward to getting into the office and those feelings are still there,” Heller said Thursday during a teleconference. “I miss that for sure.
“The office is my happy place as it is for a lot of people. Not being able to go in there every day takes you out of your routine. It has been challenging at times for me to get into a solid routine, but I’m starting to settle in and come to grips with it.”
Two weeks ago, the Big Ten Conference canceled all competition through the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. A similar stance was taken throughout the NCAA. Prior to that, the Hawkeyes were 10-5 overall with three wins over ranked opponents. Iowa won seven of its final eight games.
“We were super-happy with the progress we were making,” Heller said. “We played well at times, really well at times. It was coming together, I felt good about where we were — we were playing well in all areas of the game.”
The day before the season ended, the Hawkeyes put the finishing touches on a two-game sweep of Kansas at Duane Banks Field. In the two games, Iowa outscored the Jayhawks, 11-1.
Then, in Heller’s words, the brakes were applied, and he and the Hawkeyes went from 100 miles per hour to a screeching halt. Like most of Heller’s communication, this message to his team was straightforward: Here’s the deal, we have no control over this.
“It was awful when I had to tell the team it was over,” Heller said. “We’re not the only ones going through it, we will get through it and hopefully something positive comes out of it.
“You see the amount of effort and hard work these guys have put into this and the coaching staffs and everyone else. It’s 24-7, seven days a week to get ready for the season. Then it’s gone. To not be able to play is the worst thing for anyone that loves to play. The sacrifices that were made, the amount of effort it takes to be a student-athlete…I think about the commitment and sacrifice and then not being able to see it through, it hurts.”
Heller appreciates the leadership from senior captains Justin Jenkins, Grant Judkins, Austin Martin, and Ben Norman as the team attempts to normalize as much as much as possible with its communication system. Another asset has been strength and conditioning coach Zach Walrod, who has been sending ideas for training at home and different things to do to stay in shape. Heller said the biggest challenge is for hitters.
“All the facilities are locked down and trying to find a cage that is adequate enough to do a good hitting routine is where our guys are struggling,” he said.
Iowa’s coaching staff preaches a growth mindset and controlling what you can control. That’s what the Hawkeyes currently face. The team will have a video conference call March 27, the first step to normalcy.
Heller’s primary concern now is that the players finish strong in the classroom.
“We don’t want the guys throwing their hands in the air saying ‘School’s out, I don’t have to go to class,'” Heller said. “As the head coach, I worry about that more than you think.”
Heller spent 30 minutes Thursday answering an array of questions:
The NCAA Council will vote on giving spring student-athletes their year of eligibility back on March 30. That answer will give Heller a blueprint toward putting together a roster for the 2021 season, but the Major League Baseball Draft will also play a role in the roster construction.
“If Martin, Norman, and Judkins get drafted, they are going to sign,” said Heller. “If there is no draft, they would love to come back, I’m sure. Everyone is waiting to see what happens.
“We’re not a full-ride sport and a majority of those guys are paying more to go to college than we’re paying them. That piece of the puzzle is important.”
Participation in Summer Leagues
“If summer leagues do play, they are going to be booming because virtually every kid is going to go out and play. The trend the last 3-4 years was to leave a lot of guys home, take summer school, train, get stronger, then start ramping it up heading to fall ball, especially the pitchers who logged a lot of innings (during the season). Now, everybody is going to be looking for a place to play.”
35 Players on a Roster, 27 Scholarship Players, 11.7 Scholarships
“It is really messy. You just can’t say you’re going to give eligibility back and expect the coaches to maintain their 35-man roster and the 27 on scholarship because you have 10 guys coming in to replace your 10 seniors.
‘You have also given money away to kids coming in to replace the guys you think will be drafted and signed in the draft. Baseball is difficult every day trying to manage that with so many uncontrollables, but at the end of the day, it has to add up to 11.7, 27 and 35. That’s the question, if we’re going to give eligibility back, then we have to make a concession with those numbers. That’s the issue the council will have to come to grips with (Monday).”
What are Incoming Recruits Saying?
“They have been great, everybody is hanging in there. The out-of-state kids, who play spring (high school) baseball are pretty bummed, just like our kids, that their seasons, for the most part, have all been canceled.
“All those guys were going to come to Iowa and take summer classes and train with coach Walrod and possibly play in local leagues around here. That is on hold now because we’re not sure what is going to happen with summer school. Those guys are in limbo like the rest of us, waiting to see what will happen in the next few weeks.”