Night and day would be the best way to describe second-year Iowa head coach Rick Heller's coaching life now as compared to his first season with the Hawkeyes.
Though Heller was considered a very good hire for the Hawkeyes on the national stage when you look at his track record at Indiana State, the addition didn't create much long-term buzz inside the state of Iowa. And let's face it, who could blame media in the state? After all, this is an Iowa program with a whopping three NCAA postseason appearances, the last coming in 1990.
The Heller-led Hawkeyes gained some traction last season by tallying 30 wins, but a losing record in the Big Ten Conference kept them from really making a big splash on the national stage.But boy is everything now much different. The Hawkeyes, off to an 18-7 start and most notably getting a home series sweep against Indiana this past weekend, have really changed their fortunes. And as for Heller, his life has changed, too. Typically, he was just worried about taking care of his duties as a head coach. But now media around the state want a chance to talk with one of the Midwest's hottest coaches and programs.
It's uncharted waters for the Hawkeyes, but Heller will take the suddenly hectic lifestyle. It's a sign of progress.
"It's been funny. It seems like the past couple of days, it's been hard to get any work done with the number of phone calls I'm getting wanting to know about our team," Heller said. "I've got a lot of people wanting me to come on this and that radio show, and some television appearances. It's unique because this program hasn't had that in a while.
"Last weekend's series against Indiana was fun. We unveiled a few facilities upgrades and we had some good, energetic crowds," he continued. "We also had quite a bit of media out to see us, even media from Des Moines."
Expectations for this Iowa team were rather tempered entering the season. The Big Ten was expected to be much improved and had the potential to be historically strong, and the Hawkeyes weren't expected to be near the top of that hierarchy, picked to finish ninth in the league.
But Heller was still very optimistic coming into the season despite being thrown some curveballs in the offseason. For instance, the Hawkeyes were under the impression talented starting pitcher Sasha Keubel would return for another season, and pretty much counted on that when it came to roster spots. Keubel, though, surprised many by signing with the Cardinals as a 31st-round selection last summer. Suddenly, the Hawkeyes were without their most consistent starting pitcher. They also had to replace departed shortstop Jake Yacinich, the team's leading hitter by a wide margin and someone who caused havoc on the base paths and recorded 25 stolen bases last season.
"The big question was shortstop. Yacinich was really good there last year, and was our three-hole hitter as well. We just needed someone to fill that void. Losing Sasha is something I thought might be devastating for us," Heller said. "But in the end, I'm not real surprised that we're playing like this. When the season started, I really thought this could be a 15-16 league win type of club. We thought we'd be playing some teams in non-conference that would help our RPI, and we've managed to win a lot of those games.
"I knew we had a lot of seniors coming back, and they wanted to take things a step further for this program," he continued. "I figured if guys like Blake [Hickman] could continue to emerge, we've had a chance. But in the end, for our group, I always tell them that no one expected us to have success, at least not like this. I just want our guys to continue playing hard, and as long as we do that and don't get too wrapped up in the hoopla, we'll keep pushing forward."
The Hawkeyes are a much different club, statistically speaking, than they were last season. Iowa finished the 2014 campaign with a .296 batting average and 4.34 ERA. But this year? The Hawkeyes have flipped the script, hitting just .273 and still having productive hitters such as veteran Eric Toole (353/.445/.441), but with team defense and the pitching staff cleary leading the way. The Hawkeyes rank fifth nationally in fielding percentage and ERA.
Iowa is enjoying consistently good contributions from starting pitchers Tyler Peyton, Hickman and Calvin Mathews. Peyton made waves this past weekend by tossing a complete game gem against Indiana, and is showing much improved stuff. He is sitting low-90s with his fastball as opposed to the 87-88 mph he sat last season while possessing a good changeup and a sometimes swing-and-miss slider. Meanwhile, 6-foot-5, 210-pund Hickman is the club's elite prospect and is a power arm coming into his own. Hickman (2.77, 39 IP) could miss a few more bats, but is still showing premium stuff at times, sitting low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, showing a good changeup and improved breaking ball. Then there's Mathews, a hard-nosed junior who's playing through shoulder issues because he didn't want to sit out his junior season.
"Tyler's command and velocity from last season to this year is much better. We kind of thought he might do that after getting into our weight program, but it's good to see. He's bigger, stronger and in terrific shape. He's also cleaned up some stuff mechanically," Heller said. "The big thing with Blake is that his command has gotten much better, and he's locating his big-time fastball. His location hadn't been the best at times in the past, but it's much better now."
The Hawkeyes also are enjoying good contributions from their bullpen, led by senior righthander Nick Hibbing, who sits in the low-90s with his fastball and has a good changeup and curveball, while junior-college transfer and lefthander Ryan Erickson is drawing attention from scouts in the region. Erickson approached Heller and the Hawkeyes about joining the team after Keubel decided to sign, and has been a pleasant surprise, sitting 90-91 mph with his fastball, along with a hard low-80s slider. He also has the ability to throw a very good changeup at times.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of Iowa's season transpires. The Hawkeyes have an RPI of 19, and though it's still early to be a slam-dunk postseason team, everything is trending the right direction. Iowa played its first six weeks on the road, and will play the next two weekends at Purdue and Maryland, a tiresome road trip that certainly will put its toughness to the test. In all, the Hawkeyes will have spent eight of their first nine weeks on the road.
Home, away or neutral site, Iowa baseball is relevant again.