By Jeff Linder, The Gazette
IOWA CITY ? Rick Heller is in his fifth season as head baseball coach at the University of Iowa, turning the program around and into a consistent winner. His first four seasons produced the best four-year stretch in program history: 140 wins, a Big Ten Conference tournament championship and an appearance in an NCAA regional twice in the last three years.
The Eldon, Iowa, native came into this season with 830 career victories as head coach at Iowa, Indiana State (2009-13), Northern Iowa (1999-2009) and Upper Iowa (1987-99). The Hawkeyes (12-7) begin 2018 Big Ten play this weekend with a home series against preseason conference favorite Indiana.
Heller was interviewed Wednesday by The Gazette, talking about his team, his program, not getting the Iowa job when he interviewed for it initially and other things.
Q: Everyone seems to be using the term ?Hellerball? on social media when they talk about your team and program. So what is ?Hellerball??
A: (Laughs) I don?t know. It probably means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. One of my former players at UNI, Brett Douglas, was the first guy to throw it out there, and I think he used it kind of jokingly in a tweet that kind of caught on with everybody. The success we?ve had the last four years, a lot of people have been having fun with it. But I don?t know what it means. To me, it?s just the style of play we have. We play hard, focus on the next pitch, hustle. Just our style of play and what our program represents on and off the field is kind of how I would look at it.
Q: Where is this team at as it begins Big Ten play? What are your thoughts this team as it enters Big Ten play?
A: It?s been up and down the early part of the season. We started off fairly hot, as far as winning games, but we really weren?t playing great baseball across the board. Or baseball that I would consider is going to give you a chance to win in the Big Ten. We kind of hit a wall the fourth week of the season with the travel. We were flat at UNLV (losing three straight games two weeks ago) and had some bad timing in that they were really, really hot and playing extremely well. We were kind of on fumes from the travel that we?d had (to Florida, New Orleans and Alabama the three previous weekends) and had some guys scuffling. It wasn?t like we didn?t compete ... The one thing that?s a little concerning heading into the Big Ten is we felt like the strength of our team was our pitching and bullpen depth. The expectations were a lot of the younger arms that we had having roles and executing those roles, though we?ve really kind of struggled with that the last week or two off and on. That is something that has to get cleaned up in a hurry as we head into Big Ten play, because our schedule is really rough.
The positive thing is our offense has been coming around and is being more consistent. Getting Chris Whelan back from injury and into the leadoff spot has been big. I think we?re finding a lineup that we?re going to run out there against lefties and righties, knowing whose roles are going to fit where. That is definitely what you want to have established before Big Ten starts. At least we know we?re going to put a solid defense out there and know the guys who are going to make plays. Our pitching on the weekends has really been pretty good. Zach Daniels, Grant Leonard, Cam Baumann, some of those guys have been really consistent out of the pen. We just need to get the others better confidence wise here.
This team has a ways to go, it?s kind of a work in progress. We knew it would be with a number of new players on the team, and the guys we?ve lost the last couple of years to the (MLB) draft and graduation were all really good players. This team has just been a building process.
Q: Is winning a Big Ten regular-season championship maybe the next step you?d like this program to take?
A: That?s the goal. That?s the big one. Having 13 teams in an extremely tough conference, that?s the goal. We?ve done an extremely good job the last four years. Two years ago, when Illinois won it, we finished second, and the third-place team was Maryland, which was five games behind us. About any other year but that one, we would have won the Big Ten. We?ve been close. That?s what we?re shooting for every year. This year is going to be a year where we?re really going to have to turn it around and play great baseball each and every weekend. That?s kind of been the bugaboo with this team. We just haven?t been as consistent as in the past. That?s going to have to get cleaned up in a hurry if we?re going to make a run. Especially this year, you don?t play all of the other teams, so you are kind of at the mercy of the draw, the computer that decides who you are going to play. Quite frankly, this year, we?ve got a pretty tough draw.