Iowa baseball looking to reload after significant offseason turnover

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Rick Heller addresses reporters at Iowa baseball media day on Feb. 5.

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa baseball team has experienced significant turnover to both its roster and coaching staff over the past four years.

So Rick Heller is used to dealing with personnel changes because it goes with the territory.

However, his ability to deal with change was tested big time when Heller lost both his hitting coach (Desi Druschel) and pitching coach (Joe Migliacco) just a few days before practice started last month. Druschel and Migliacco both resigned to take jobs with the New York Yankees organization.

Heller had to act quickly with practice approaching and he responded by hiring Robin Lund as his new hitting coach and former Major League pitcher Tom Gorzelanny as his new pitching coach.

Heller also has to replace some key players from last season, including All-Big Ten catcher Tyler Cropley and All-Big Ten right fielder Robert Neustrom, but one thing that hasn't changed is the expecations for the program.

Iowa has won at least 30 games in each of Heller's first five seasons as head coach, including finishing 13-9 in Big Ten play and 33-20 overall.

Heller knows there could be some early struggles due to all of the changes, but he expects Lund and Gorzelanny to pick up where Druschel and Migliaccio left off fairly quickly.

“The great thing is is that they left us in a great spot,” Heller said at Iowa's annual media day event on Tuesday. “Our guys were really prepared, they were ready to go. They did a good job of helping the new coaches get acclimated before they took off. Robin Lund and Tom Gorzelanny, they’ve been doing an outstanding job.

“It’s been tough at times just because of the timing of it. We’re getting ready to play and they’re trying to learn what’s going on and how things work. All those things have been a bit of a struggle to work through but those guys have done a tremendous job. They’re building good relationships with the players.”

Lund and Gorzelanny both bring a plethora of baseball knowledge to the table, particuarly Gorzelanny, who spent 12 seasons in Major League Baseball as a member of six different organizations before retiring from baseball in 2017.

Lund has a familiarity with Heller, having served as a volunteer strength and conditioning coach from 2005-06 when Heller was the head coach at Northern Iowa.

One of the players trying to soak up every bit of knowledge from Gorzelanny is senior right-handed pitcher Cole McDonald.

McDonald, a native of New Hampton, Iowa, went 3-2 in 11 starts last season along with a 3.23 earned run average and will be the Friday starter for Iowa this season.

“I pick his brain every single day,” McDonald said. “There’s just so much knowledge that he has. Obviously, Desi helped me a lot with mechanics and a bunch of knowledgeable things too. But the experience (Gorzelanny) has, actually playing in big games is invaluable.

“There’s so many small details that I would never think about that I’m adding to my game right now. It’s definitely really helpful and it brings some more confidence to me I might not have had before.”

Iowa also will look to a few new faces in its starting lineup after losing Neustrom, Cropley and infielders Kyle Crowl and Matt Hoeg from last year’s team.

The four players combined for 29 home runs and 149 runs batted in last season.

Neustrom and Cropley both were drafted and now are playing in the minor leagues.

Senior Chris Whelan, who hit .308 last season leading off mostly as the designated hitter, said he is trying to step up in a leadership role this season to help fill the shoes left by those before him.

“It has definitely changed a little bit,” Whelan said. “Being a fifth year senior and one of the older guys on the team, coming from last year when we still had guys older than me and now I’m kind of the grandpa of the team.

“We’ve got a few of the guys calling me ‘dad’ and everything like that. I get made fun of a little bit but I like it, I like being the older guy and trying to influence some of the younger guys and help them along the way because a lot of guys helped me along the way to get where I am today so I’m just going to take it and run with it.”

Despite the loss of offensive production, Whelan, a native of Naperville, Ill., thinks this team could be something special.

“I think it’s one of the most talented teams we’ve had in my time here,” Whelan said. “Through and through the lineup there’s going to be guys that could easily play for us or start for any other team and that’s just kind of the situation we’re in right now, which is a great situation to have.

“It makes coach Heller’s job a lot harder trying to figure out a lineup and he could really put anybody out there.”

Heller is counting on some new faces to help maintain Iowa's level of success. One of the new faces is former Iowa City West star Izaya Fullard.

Fullard played his freshman season for Kirkwood Community College last season and drove in more runs than any junior college player in the country. He could fit nicely as a designated hitter.

"I think that (coach Heller) is very confident in my bat," said Fullard, who is the son of former Iowa basketball player Kenny Fullard. "I think I can help the team defensively, too. But I think for me, the big they really want me to do is drive in some runs and get on base."

Fullard is one of three players on the Iowa roster who are from the Iowa City area. The others are redshirt freshman outfielder and former West High standout Connor McCaffery and sophomore catcher and former City High star Brett McCleary.

McCaffery also plays on the Iowa basketball team as a point guard, so he won't join the baseball team on a full-time basis until late March.

"I'm a pretty confident player," Connor McCaffery said. " I'd like to think that I won't be affected at all by missing (some games).
   

With the kind of turnover he has had to endure recently, especially on his coaching staff, Heller said he tries to have a contingency plan in place should someone accept another job.

“With Joe we knew for a couple weeks before school started,” Heller said. “With Desi, he literally accepted the job the day before the kids got back so, I mean, it was last second. We’ve lost a lot of guys to pro ball in the last four years.

“So I really try to have a plan in case something happens. Now, losing both, that’s the first time that has happened, that’s a little tougher to lose your hitting coach and your pitching coach. But the plan I had is the one you see and thank goodness it worked out.”