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Leistikow: How Iowa baseball team turned its season around from an Ohio hotel

No matter what the players did or how hard they prepared, it seemed like the world was against the Iowa baseball team. This was supposed to be a statement season. And now, on March 26, an 8-2 series-opening loss to Ohio State dropped the Hawkeyes’ record to 4-8.

“Guys were struggling at the time. I was one of them struggling,” said Izaya Fullard, whose batting average slipped to .167 after Iowa’s third straight loss in a high-pressure, Big Ten Conference-only season. “It’s hard, especially in baseball. It’s such a sport of failure that it’s hard not to get down on yourself.”

Back in their Columbus hotel that night, an impromptu players-only meeting ensued. You hear about players-only meetings at every level of sports, and usually they don’t have much teeth.

But, for whatever reason, this one had some bite.

Starting ace Trenton Wallace had something to say. So did catcher Austin Martin. Others chipped in with their thoughts in the open forum. The primary message?

Guys, relax. We’re pressing. Stop trying to do too much.

This was a group of veteran players, many of whom were paying for an extra year of college out of pocket just for this 2021 opportunity. They were part of arguably the best team of the Rick Heller era and had their season canceled in 2020 due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. And this 2021 thing was going horribly wrong.

But this meeting … well, there can be little dispute that it worked. Because Iowa beat Ohio State and Maryland in a doubleheader the next day, then whipped Maryland, 11-2, behind an eight-run sixth inning on Sunday. The Hawkeyes were suddenly 7-8, and they’ve been rolling ever since.

“(The meeting) brought everyone closer together. We (decided), we’ve got nothing to lose, we might as well stay relaxed and have fun the rest of the year,” Wallace said. “I think that’s what turned this team around."

A major injury, a controversial and detrimental COVID pause … and more injuries.

If Heller can lead Iowa to an NCAA regional (and it’s certainly within reach; more on that later), it might be his most impressive feat yet in eight tremendous years as head coach.

As mentioned, this 2021 team figured to be loaded with horses. This was a veteran group that had a lot of unfinished business from 2020.

But … the team unexpectedly lost two of its top three starting pitchers. Grant Judkins, who was planning to return, signed a pro contract in June. (He’s currently playing low-A ball with the Oakland A’s organization.) Then in the fall, presumed No. 1 starter Jack Dreyer suffered an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. Furthermore, it was a major blow from the Hawkeyes’ perspective to be told there would be no non-conference regular-season games in 2021.

But that was nothing compared to what happened just over two weeks before the season, when four Hawkeyes who had previously had COVID-19 tested positive again for the virus. All four were asymptomatic and suspected the tests were false positives. So, the next day (according to Wallace), all four got an independent second test.

“All four of them tested negative,” Wallace said.

Yet, the baseball program was placed on a seven-day shutdown by the university, at the direction of medical personnel. Ben Norman, a team captain and one of the four players who had tested positive, blasted the university's stubborn stance in a long Twitter post for not allowing the four players to take a second university-issued test. The shutdown stood, and Iowa players — with no non-conference games to build toward the Big Ten grind — suddenly had to be isolated and find ways to train on their own.

“It affected us from a training standpoint, a mental standpoint,” Heller said. “And the thing that scared me the most was — (with) not being able to train the way we needed to — that there would be a lot of injuries."

And that’s exactly how it played out. Not only did Iowa start in a 4-8 hole, its key contributors were falling out of the lineup due to soft-tissue injuries that Heller thinks would’ve been avoided otherwise.

Fullard and Martin, two of the team’s top hitters, suffered injuries. So did big bat Peyton Williams and Martin’s backup catcher, Tyler Snep. Three pitchers were dealt season-ending injuries in some of Iowa’s early games. A four-game series to open the season against Michigan — a loaded Big Ten program which was the College World Series runner-up in 2019 — made the initial challenge even more difficult. Iowa lost three of four to the Wolverines by a combined 25-14 margin.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” Heller said. “… Just a lot of things that were out of our control that we had to fight through. It was super disappointing. Because our team knew the potential we had."

The anger swelled within the team.

"From that point on," Wallace said, "we were fired up a little bit."

Rick Heller on Iowa’s fifth straight winning weekend: ‘It just makes you really proud when you have a team that doesn’t quit.’
Iowa coach Rick Heller breaks down the Hawkeyes’ walk-off and series-clinching win vs. Northwestern.
Dargan Southard, Hawk Central

Doubles dances, and a band of (mostly Iowa) brothers

One of the byproducts of that meeting in Columbus was the concept of “doubles dances.” As Fullard explained it, if a player reaches second base after a double, he immediately points to the dugout, then thrusts his hands high in the air. Everyone in the dugout shouts, “Yah!” The person on second base throws his hands downward, and the dugout roars, “Eee.”

“The team really loves it,” Fullard said. “And even some of the parents have gotten into it.

“Right after our meeting, I definitely saw a couple guys going harder, trying to get that double.”

After home runs, the dugout empties toward home plate to congratulate the long-ball hitter, who is tasked to mimic a dramatic slam dunk as if in a basketball game. Hey, these are kids. They don’t need to be splitting atoms; they just need to find what works.

And those were examples of ways that the Hawkeyes rediscovered a loose feel to the game, added enjoyment and a collective purpose. They’ve gone from that 4-8 start to roaring into contention for a Big Ten regular-season title and NCAA bid. Post-meeting, Iowa won 14 of its next 17 games. That’s really hard to do in the highly competitive Big Ten.

Another unifying factor that can’t be ignored in the Hawkeyes’ surge: The heavy Iowa flavor on this roster.

Norman, Heller's leadoff man who entered this weekend as the Big Ten’s leader in RBIs, hails from Des Moines Roosevelt. Fullard is an Iowa City West product. Iowa has other lineup regulars who prepped at Southeast Polk, Johnston, Indianola and Pleasantville.

All four starting pitchers that Heller has used this season prepped at Iowa high schools. Wallace went to Davenport Assumption; Duncan Davitt went to Indianola; Cam Baumann went to Fairfield; Drew Irvine went to Waukee.

“We made a vow at my (introductory) press conference that we were going to try to get the very best players from Iowa stay and be Hawkeyes,” Heller said. “And that we would build a program where there would be pride in wanting to stay and play for Iowa.”

Iowa is the only Division I baseball program in the state. As Norman put it, most of the guys on the roster (24 of 41 are from Iowa) grew up Hawkeye fans. There’s a hunger to show that dudes who grew up here can battle with the best. Especially with nonconference opportunities eliminated and no Big Ten tournament due to COVID-19, the Hawkeyes want to reach the postseason to test themselves.

"We want to put Iowa back on the map,” said Fullard, who entering Friday was hitting a team-best .418 over his last 15 games. "We think we’re a team that’s as good as anyone in the country, and we want to show that."

Well-positioned for first NCAA regional since 2017, but more work to do

Norman is one of two Hawkeyes on the roster (relief pitcher Grant Leonard is the other) who has experienced what it’s like to participate in an NCAA regional. Norman was a freshman all-American in 2017 when Iowa upended top-seeded Houston in its opening game then lost a pair of late-inning heartbreakers to fall excruciatingly short of a super-regional (final 16) spot.

“The biggest thing you learn is that you can play with anybody in the country,” Norman said. “We’ve faced a lot of good pitching, a lot of good hitters. … You just have to play clean baseball and let the chips fall where they may.”

In other words, these guys just want to have a shot. And after the adversity in the offseason and early season, they've played their way back into a good position.

They entered Friday’s series opener against Illinois with a 21-14 record and were projected as a No. 3 seed in one of the 16, four-team regionals. But that’s on paper. In a year that won't have a Big Ten Tournament (due to COVID-19), the Hawkeyes’ only sure way to make the NCAAs is by winning the regular-season championship — something not done here since 1990.

The key in Iowa’s final nine games (three vs. Illinois, three at Northwestern, three at Michigan State) is to continue to play loose. No sense getting tense now.

“We can’t focus on what people are predicting,” said Fullard, who turned down a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to return for this regional shot that’s been two years in the making. “We have to focus on taking one game at a time and taking care of our business.”

Iowa wrapped up final-exams week Friday. The focus for this veteran group is just playing baseball. 

The Hawkeyes' plan is to keep having fun and carrying their doubles dances into the postseason.

“The biggest thing for me is I want to leave no stone unturned,” Norman said. “Leave it all on the field.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.