IOWA CITY, Iowa – In two seasons under Rick Heller, the Iowa baseball team has gone from being an afterthought to a curiosity to a key source of spring entertainment.
The Hawkeyes are coming off a 2015 season in which they won 41 games, played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 and saw a major increase in fan support and home attendance.
"We’re just grateful for their support and it’s a really good feeling knowing the Hawkeye faithful are behind us," senior shortstop Nick Roscetti said Thursday at Iowa’s annual media day event.
Iowa returns a number of key players from last season, including two of the top three starting pitchers and four positional starters.
So now comes the next step under Heller, which is to get better, or at least sustain the current level of success.
Iowa has been picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten Conference in a vote of the league’s 13 head coaches. Michigan was picked as the favorite, followed by Maryland and Indiana.
“The biggest challenge with sustaining is that when you’re a developmental program, it takes time to develop,” Heller said Thursday. “It takes time to develop baseball players if you’re doing it what I consider the right way.
“When you lose guys, and when you lose guys the draft, there is going to be some time in between. And you just hope that your culture is good enough and that your guys are tough enough to go out and fight through it and over-achieve.”
Iowa has to replace several key performers from last season’s team that won 19 conference games and finished as the Big Ten regular-season runner-up. Among the departed are pitcher Blake Hickman, who skipped his senior season to enter the 2015 Amateur Baseball Draft, second baseman Jake Mangler, center fielder Eric Toole and utility player Kris Goodman.
The Hawkeyes will unveil their new team on Feb. 19 in the season opener against Dallas Baptist in Dallas, Texas.
“What I really want to see is our confidence level, where we’re at and how we play as a team, and then hustle and effort” Heller said. “I want to see if this team has that without me being the one to initiate it all the time.
“That’s what I’m hoping because when you lose a good group of leaders like Mangler and Toole and Goodman, all those guys that we had last season, you hope that the next group of leaders step up and they manage that from within.”
Iowa received a huge boost when ace pitcher and No. 3 hitter Tyler Peyton decided to return for his senior season instead of entering the amateur baseball draft where he was projected as a seventh-round pick. The Grimes native finished 7-4 on the mound last season, while also leading Iowa with a .337 batting average.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Peyton was semifinalist for the Jon Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award in 2015 and earned third-team all-America accolades.
“First of all, it was something none of thought would happen,” Heller said of Peyton returning for his senior season. “So it was a huge bonus and huge boom for us, getting one of the best players in the Big Ten and one of the best players in the country to come back to school; our Friday night starter, our number three hitter.
“It completely changed the dynamics of what this year would’ve been without him.”
Iowa’s success under Heller was big factor in Peyton’s decision to return.
“It became easier when I just knew I was coming back to such a great program with great coaches and stuff,” Peyton said. “All in all, I’m really happy with my decision that I’m still here.”
Peyton, who also plays first base, is one the four positional starters returning from last season. The others are Roscetti at shortstop, senior outfielder Joel Booker and senior catcher Jimmy Frankos.
Booker is preparing to be Iowa’s lead-off batter, which carries a huge responsibility.
“If your lead-off batter gets on base that just calms everything down,” said Booker, a 6-2, 190-pound native of Columbus, N.C. “It’s not like, oh, crap, we have to wait for another batter to get on base to get everything rolling.
“But if the lead-off guy gets on base, then everything is rolling from the start.”
Iowa returns 51.5 percent of is RBIs (135 of 262), 46.4 percent of its runs (136 of 293) and 45.1 percent of its hits (243 of 539) from last season.
“We want to keep building off of last year,” Roscetti said. “Yeah, we made it to the regionals for the first time since 1990. But we want to continue on with that. We don’t want to stop there. We want to keep pushing and pushing, and hopefully, get more successful.”