Believing is a big part of rebuilding and that helps to explain the sudden and improbable rise of the Iowa baseball team under second-year coach Rick Heller.
Iowa’s record-setting start to the season might be a shock to most people, but not to Heller.
He was optimistic at the end of last season that the Iowa program was on the verge of something special with a bulk of the roster returning from a team that won 30 games and qualified for the Big Ten Tournament.
And special it’s been so far, with Iowa 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in school history and 21-7 overall.
“We talked after the conference tournament last year before the guys all went off to the summer leagues that we can make a run at this,” Heller said in a recent interview. “I think being in the tournament last year, those guys saw, `hey, you know what, we’re every bit as good as these other teams. We just have to put it together.’
“And I really believe that our guys felt that as we left the tournament and then from day one in the fall there has been a drive to try and compete for a championship.”
Iowa’s rise under Heller is gaining national acclaim, evidenced by the Hawkeyes being ranked in three top 25 polls this week.
Iowa has climbed to No. 15 in the latest Collegiate Baseball NCAA Division I poll after being ranked 24th a week ago. Iowa is also ranked No. 25 in this week’s Baseball America and Perfect Game polls.
The Hawkeyes are coming off a three-game sweep against Purdue this past weekend in West Lafayette, Ind. Iowa will play a three-game series against No. 16 Maryland beginning on Friday in College Park, Md.
“It’s really awesome,” junior pitcher Blake Hickman said of the rise under Heller. “We’ve come a long way since my freshman year. Coach Heller coming in last year we made some noise in the Big Ten and now that we’re in the top 25, it’s good not only for us, but for the recruits we have coming in and the guys after them and the fans.”
Iowa’s recognition goes beyond being ranked in multiple polls. Hickman said he now gets noticed on campus for being an Iowa baseball player.
“Just walking around or sitting in the lobby, I can hear people say, it’s great to be a Hawkeye because we’re ranked now,” Hickman said. “We’re starting to get more recognition because if you’re losing nobody wants to be around you.
“Now that we’re getting our name out there more, we just have to keep competing.”
The 51-year old Heller has been a winner and program rebuilder throughout his coaching career. He worked his way up the coaching ladder by having success at Upper Iowa, Northern Iowa and Indiana State.
Heller credits the Iowa players for his latest success.
“We’ve got guys who are not only good players, but plus makeup guys and good leadership guys,” said Heller, who grew up in Eldon and graduated from Upper Iowa in 1986. “So they’ve put in the work.”
Heller replaced Jack Dahm as the Iowa coach in July 2013. Dahm had coached the Hawkeyes for 10 seasons, but with limited success.
Dahm recruited some of the players on the current Iowa team, including Hickman.
“He just wants to win,” Hickman said of Heller. “Not to say that coach Dahm didn’t want to win. But with coach Heller, when we go to practice every day it just feels like everybody wants to be there. Everybody wants to get better.”