By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Rick Heller enters his seventh season as the Iowa baseball coach with a deep and healthy pitching staff, with five returning position starters and with the top hitter from last season.
There is also a little sense of urgency with Iowa having failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
“That’s our goal from day one,” said junior Izaya Fullard. “Last year, we had a really good chance and fell short.
“But that’s alright, coming into this year we know what we want to do. We know we want to be in Omaha at the end of the year. And I think we have a real good group of guys that is going to get us there.”
Fullard made that bold prediction at Iowa’s annual media day event on Wednesday.
The mood is always upbeat and optimistic at media day, but Iowa also has reached the point under Heller where making the NCAA Tournament is considered the new standard.
Iowa has advanced to the Big Ten Tournament in each of Heller’s first six seasons, and made the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2017.
Iowa also has won at least 30 games in each of Heller’s six seasons, which is Iowa’s longest stretch of 30-win seasons since 1979-85.
So the next step is getting back to the NCAA Tournament, and Fullard’s performance could go a long way in determining whether it happens.
The former Iowa City West standout is Iowa’s top returning hitter with a .307 average, and he will be counted on to provide both power and consistency in the middle of the lineup.
But it’s Fullard’s defense that might have even a bigger impact as he faces the challenge of replacing Mitchell Boe at second base.
The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Fullard has shown that he can hit at every level, but he has little experience with playing second base, at least in games.
Fullard played third base almost exclusively in high school, and was used mostly as a designated hitter last season at Iowa, although, he did practice a lot at second base.
“It’s a lot different,” Fullard said of playing second base. “At first, it was a really big kind of adjustment just because it’s on a different side of the field, so I’m kind of adjusting to that.
“Double plays and stuff like that has been a bit of adjustment. But last year, Mitch Boe really helped me out a lot. So I’m pretty confident going into this year.”
Heller’s confidence is due largely to Iowa’s pitching where two-thirds of the starting rotation returns, along with 11 pitchers overall.
Sophomore Jack Dreyer returns after missing most of last season with an injury. The Johnson native is now healthy and the leading candidate to be Iowa’s Friday starter.
“He’s in a great spot right now,” Heller said of Dreyer. “It’s better than it was at any point prior to this. He’s strong. He’s healthy. He’s confident. He’s pitching real well every time that we’ve done our lives sets up to this point.
“So he’s in a real good place and we’ll likely give Jack the ball to start the game on Friday. The good thing is we’ve got five or six other guys who are fighting for spots in the rotation.”
Iowa will face Kent State in the season opener on Feb. 14th as part of the Snowboard Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Dreyer is eager to get the season started and to be around his teammates during road trips because he missed out on that experience last season after being injured.
“I’m most excited just to travel with the team again,” Dreyer said. “That’s something I missed out on last season not getting to travel.
“And there’s really a team element. You’re on a baseball team, but if you’re not traveling, you kind of miss out on that team aspect, you know, bonding with the guys. So I’m just excited for that to start up again.”
Dreyer is also excited about the possibility of being Iowa’s Friday starter, which is considered the ace of the staff.
“It would mean a lot,” he said. “There are a lot of important guys who have come before me and set the precedent on what’s expected and what our job is. So I just want to continue with that legacy.”
Heller singled out sophomore pitcher Drew Irvine for high praise on Wednesday, saying the Waukee native has made significant progress since last season and has the potential to be a Friday-caliber starter.
“Drew Irvine has pitched absolutely outstanding,” Heller said. “Probably as big a turnaround as I’ve seen in a long, long time in a player from one year to the other in all areas.”
Iowa also has one of the top closers in the Big Ten in senior Grant Leonard, who set a school record with 14 saves last season.
“I’m pretty confident in a lot of guys,” Leonard said of the pitching. “Just from the time I’ve been here, it’s probably the best I’ve seen, and we’re excited from top to bottom about what we got.”
As for the offense, finding somebody to replace Chris Whelan as the leadoff hitter is a priority. Whelan had that role in each of the past three seasons and had a knack for getting on base.
“Finding someone who cans step into that role is a big question that needs to be answered,” Heller said.
Iowa struggled at the end of last season due to several factors, including the competition having played well.
But a lack of pitching depth due to injuries also was a factor down the stretch.
“I just think it was more baseball related than anything else,” Heller said. “I didn’t feel like it was sluggish.
“Now we were shorthanded last year and I do think the back end of our bullpen got a little tired at the end of the season because we had to go to them a lot.”
But now just one year later, Heller feels Iowa’s biggest strength could be its pitching depth, from the starters to relievers to having Leonard on the back end.
“So it’s going to be nice this first weekend going south knowing that we don’t have to stretch anybody out for any extended period of time,” Heller said of his pitchers. “We can kind of have double starts in each one of the games and take a look at each one of these guys and try and come up with the best role for each one of them.”