By Adam Hensley
The wait is over.
Hawkeye baseball travels to Tampa, Florida, for its first games of the season this weekend.
Iowa, tied for sixth in the Big Ten Preseason Poll, squares off against South Florida for three games (today and Saturday at 5:30 p.m., 11 a.m. Feb. 19).
With 22 new players on the roster, head coach Rick Heller sees these first games as an opportunity to feel things out.
His team has consistently churned out a high level of play on defense in his three years at Iowa (top-15 in fielding percentage), he says that’s been the driving factor to success.
“That has to stay consistent with the quality arms we have and defense we’ve got,” Heller said. “We’re going to be playing two freshmen at center field in Justin Jenkins and Ben Norman. Both of them I think can do a great job for us defensively and be productive offensively”
Jenkins and Norman were both top-500 Perfect Game prospects in high school, and they aren’t the only ones changing the Hawkeye lineup.
Heller switched things up on the mound, giving Nick Gallagher the starting nod as Iowa’s Friday pitcher and moving C.J. Eldred to the Saturday starter.
“I learned a lot from C.J. last year,” Gallagher said. “He was a big role model for me. It’s fun being local guys. We grew up Hawkeye fans.”
Now, Eldred believes the Hawkeye duo could be “one of the best one-two punches in the country.”
On Feb. 14, the program announced that sophomore Shane Ritter would be the Sunday starter.
Ritter had a 2-1 record last season. In his second start of the season (in the Big Ten tournament game against Maryland) Ritter pitched three shutout innings and allowed only 3 hits.
On offense, Heller thinks his team has the potential to command some of the biggest bats in his Hawkeye career.
“A lot depends on Jake [Adams], if Jake’s able to make the transition quickly from junior college to Division-1 pitching,” Heller said. “It could be a lot of power, because he has it. His raw power is as good as anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Preseason All-Big Ten outfielder Robert Neustrom believes that Iowa “definitely” has more power and pop in the lineup, noting Adams in particular.
“He’s hit a ball farther than I think I’ve ever seen,” Neustrom said of the DMACC transfer who hit 25 home runs his sophomore season.
Adams won’t be the only one drilling balls out of the park.
Neustrom and Mason McCoy each earned a spot on the Big Ten’s Preseason Honors list (along with Gallagher), and Heller thinks their bats will match up well with Adams.
When it comes to how the Hawkeyes will fare over the 2017 season, McCoy sees a bright future for the young team.
“We have a good core group,” he said. “It definitely gives experience
for the young guys. I think we’re going to surprise some [people] this year.”
A live audio stream of the game is available on Hawkeye All-Access with Zach Mackey. To watch live, fans can go to gousfbulls.com.
Iowa’s next games will be Feb. 24, when the Hawkeyes travel to Hoover, Alabama, for the weekend to play Alabama State and Morehead State.