Fall Report: Iowa

Some observers snickered at the time, but Rick Heller always felt that Iowa had the potential to become one of the Big Ten Conference’s better programs. Never mind the fact the Hawkeyes, before the Heller era, hadn’t won the conference regular season title since 1990, and more importantly, hadn’t reached the NCAA postseason since the same year.

IowaLogo90X90Heller, though, has poured his heart and soul into trying to make the Hawkeyes an immediate winner, and he’s succeeded in that task, which once seemed close to impossible. In his first season at the helm, the Hawkeyes compiled a 30-23 overall record, allowing his players to taste some sort of success. However, the turning point of this program might have come last year with the return of several key veteran players.

That rise was unexpected. The Hawkeyes were picked ninth in the league, and it wasn’t until a home series sweep over Indiana to start conference play that people started to realize that, hey, this Iowa team is good.

You know the rest of the story, as the Hawkeyes stormed through the Big Ten schedule and narrowly missed earning an NCAA regional host in Iowa City, Iowa, while also falling just short of advancing to the super regional round. Despite a heartbreaking end to the season, the Hawkeyes now round up fall workouts with heightened expectations because of what transpired last season.

“I think [last season] has changed us. We’re a lot more relevant now, not only within our campus and state, but we’re more relevant on the national stage and in recruiting battles. There are teams we never beat before that we’re finally winning head-to-head battles against,” Heller said. “We were fortunate that we had the big group of juniors that we did, and there was some talent there that could be developed.

“We got a nice taste of success in our first season, and that made those guys believe and work even harder last season,” he continued. “When you come into the program, you can believe all you want, but you also have to change things. And that class, and this team changed things.”

That special season behind them, the Hawkeyes finish up fall workouts with plenty of new faces, but also with some familiar ones, too. For instance, the Hawkeyes, Heller admitted, got an unexpected boost with the return of two-way star Tyler Peyton, while they also welcome back an impressive veteran pitcher in Calvin Mathews. With that said, replacing Blake Hickman and Nick Hibbing won’t be easy, and the offense has some holes to fill with the departures of a few, including spark plug Eric Toole, who hit .306 (second on the team) in 2015.

Heller is cautiously optimistic about his team after the fall. He feels like the offense has a chance to be even better, and the pitching has a chance to be better, too, with Mathews making a big jump (as we’ll note later in this feature) and Ryan Erickson potentially ready to take the next step.

“You know, our goals are going to stay the same. Tyler came back because he wanted to see if he could help take this team further in our league and on the national stage,” he said. “I feel like our team is like a lot of teams in the Big Ten in that we all lost some real key guys to the draft, but even though our schedule is tough, I feel like we’re in good shape if we can survive the first four weeks of the season on the road.”

The Hawkeyes now want more, and we profile several players that had strong falls and could help this team reach more heights.

 


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