By Pete Ruden
It’s been a long wait, but Iowa baseball is back. The Hawkeyes begin the road to defending their Big Ten Tournament championship this weekend as they take on Toledo, Oakland, and Old Dominion in the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida.
With snow covering the ground in Iowa, the Hawkeyes have the opportunity to get in their own form of spring training. But while spring training doesn’t count for the MLB teams that are just getting started, these games count for Iowa.
“It’s a little unnerving just knowing that the games count,” head coach Rick Heller said. “A lot of people say to me ‘Yeah, you’re starting spring training.’ Well, it’s not spring training. It really counts. It’s probably not fair that they count, but they do, so you have to be ready, and no excuses.”
With it being Iowa’s first games of the season, it will certainly face some challenges: three to be exact.
Iowa has different scouting reports for each of the teams it will face this weekend, which is a lot to take in in three days.
Each team is expected to have a decent finish in its respective conference for the most part. Toledo was picked to finish eighth in the MAC, while Oakland was selected to finish fifth in the Horizon League. To top it off, Old Dominion was picked to finish fourth in the C-USA.
Luckily for Iowa, the Hawkeyes have some experience playing with each other. However, the Black and Gold lost a big part of its weekend pitching rotation to the professional ranks, as well as Mason McCoy and Jake Adams in the infield.
Iowa will have new starters at third base, shortstop, first base, and left field, in the absence of Chris Whelan, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
But Iowa’s trip to Kansas and Taiwan for the World University Games was extremely helpful for the squad, because players bonded with each other and got a feel for playing as a team.
“It feels like we’ve already kind of played a season, too, when you look back at our fall, going to Taiwan and then Wichita, too,” right fielder Robert Neustrom said. “I haven’t really sensed any jitters or anything like that, which you usually get with the opening series, but I think everyone’s just excited.”
The Hawkeyes have a number of key pieces returning from their Big Ten Tournament title run last May.
One of the most key is Neustrom, who was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year by Perfect Game and Baseball America.
He continued his impressive play from last season by hitting a team-best .387 in Taiwan, while bringing in 6 runs.
Neustrom and Parkland College transfer pitcher Brady Schanuel were also named to the Perfect Game Preseason All-Big Ten team.
Iowa also returns starting pitcher Nick Allgeyer — who was named the team’s Friday starter — on the mound after he missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery. Allgeyer’s presence gives a boost to a pitching staff that lost Nick Gallagher, Ryan Erickson, and C.J. Eldred to MLB organizations.
“As a Friday night starter, your coach expects you to go out there and give your team a chance to win every time,” Allgeyer said. “So that’s my goal, is to go out there and be able to keep the team in it, give us a chance to win every Friday night.”
Heller said the team could also face adversity going to Florida, where the temperature is expected to be in the mid-80s during the team’s stay.
The fifth-year Hawkeye coach said some of his players could get tired during the game, because they aren’t yet used to playing in hot weather.
Neustrom, on the other hand, is looking forward to the change of climate for the weekend.
“[Adjusting’s] not hard at all,” Neustrom said. “I mean, where would you rather be, 70 degrees or 10 degrees?”