Rick Heller, Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa Hawkeyes

Rick Heller has turned the University of Iowa Hawkeyes baseball program into a perennial Big Ten Conference and NCAA contender in his first four seasons as the team’s head coach.

Heller has injected new life into the Iowa program, leading the Hawkeyes to the best four-year stretch in program history, winning 140 games, advancing to two NCAA Regionals, and claiming the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.  It was Iowa’s first conference title since winning the regular season crown in 1990.

Under Heller’s watch, the Iowa Hawkeyes have advanced to the postseason in four consecutive years for the first time in program history, he has coached five All-Americans and at least one first-team All-Big Ten selection each season, and Iowa has had 15 Major League Baseball Draft picks in four seasons — the most in a four-year stretch all-time.

Heller has also given the Hawkeyes an international flavor, taking the team to the Dominican Republic in 2016 and Taipei, Taiwan, as the United States representative at the 2017 World University Games.  Heller led USA to a silver medal, as the team became the first American squad to medal in Universiade history.

USA team went 5-2 during the two-week stretch, before falling to Japan in the gold medal game. The Americans posted victories over Mexico, Russia, Korea, and two games against the Czech Republic.  Junior Cole McDonald tossed a nine-inning no-hitter in game one against the Czechs — the first by a Hawkeye since 1965.

The Eldon, Iowa, native became the 20th head coach in program history in 2013 — his fourth stop as a collegiate head coach. He has enjoyed stints at Iowa (2014-present), Indiana State (2009-13), Northern Iowa (1999-2009), and Upper Iowa (1987-99), leading all four schools to NCAA postseason play. He is one of nine coaches all-time and one of five active coaches to lead three different Division I programs to NCAA Regional play.

Heller guided the Iowa Hawkeyes to an at-large berth into NCAA Regional play in 2015 — a first for the program since 1990 — and the team posted the school’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1972. It wasn’t a fluke; in the two seasons since, Iowa was runner-up at the 2016 Big Ten Tournament before claiming the program’s first tournament title in 2017 to lock up the school’s second NCAA Regional appearance in three seasons.

The Iowa Hawkeyes made just three NCAA Tournament appearances in its history prior to Heller’s arrival.

Heller led Indiana State to its first outright Missouri Valley Conference title in 2012, and Northern Iowa to the MVC title and into the NCAA Tournament in 2001, the first and only regional appearance for the Panthers as a Division I program.

On the recruiting trail, Heller has turned the Hawkeyes into a major player on the national recruiting scene by keeping the best in-state players at home. Iowa had the top-rated class in the Big Ten — and 18th-best nationally — in 2015, and the 2016 class was ranked third in the league.

In 30 seasons as a head coach, Heller owns a career record of 830-654-4. He is one of two Iowa head coaches to lead the program to the NCAA Tournament.

The 2017 season was expected to be rebuilding year in Iowa City after the program lost 25 players to graduation and/or the Major League Baseball Draft in 2015 and 2016.  Instead, the Iowa Hawkeyes won 39 games — the fifth-most in program history — claimed the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history, and earned an automatic bid into NCAA Regional play.

The groundwork for the 2017 success was laid over Thanksgiving Break when the Hawkeyes spent a week in the Dominican Republic for a foreign trip.  The team came together off the field, which led to a team unity and grit that would prove to be special during the regular season.

Iowa finished 15-9 in Big Ten Conference play to tie for fourth in the regular season standings.  The 15 wins were the second most since 2008 and it was the program’s fourth top-four finish since 2000.  The Hawkeyes were the No. 5 seed at the Big Ten Tournament, where they knocked off three higher seeds to advance to the title game — a 13-4 rout of Northwestern.

The Iowa Hawkeyes were the talk of the state in late May, as “Hellerball” dominated the headlines across the state.  Iowa carried its momentum to the NCAA Houston Regional, where it knocked off top-seeded and 15th-ranked Houston in its opener.  The season ended with 39 wins with losses to Texas A&M and Houston by a combined three runs.

The Hawkeyes saw five players garner All-Big Ten recognition, including unanimous first-team All-Big Ten first baseman and unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year honoree Jake Adams.  Adams’ lone season in Iowa City was one for the ages, as the South Dakota native hit an NCAA leading, Iowa school and Big Ten record 29 home runs.

Iowa’s offense served as the catalyst, as the team blasted 71 home runs — the most by the program since 1999.  The Hawkeyes ranked among the top three in the Big Ten in nine difference offensive categories, including leading the league in hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage, while ranking second in runs, doubles, home runs, and total bases.  Individually, Iowa players led the Big Ten in runs, slugging percentage, hits, RBIs, home runs, and total bases.

The Iowa Hawkeyes overcame injury adversity on the mound to break the school strikeout record and the defense was among the nation’s best.  Iowa finished in the top-25 in the NCAA in team fielding percentage and was tied for second nationally in doubles plays (67) — an Iowa school record.

Adams earned All-America distinction from seven different outlets and he was a semifinalist for USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award, an honor presented to the top amateur in the United States. Iowa’s Ben Norman and Kyle Shimp also earned freshmen All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball.

The Hawkeyes had four players drafted in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.  Adams and senior Mason McCoy were selected within seven picks of one another in the sixth round.  They were the program’s highest draft picks since 1999 and the highest by a position player since 1992.  Nick Gallagher and Ryan Erickson also had their names called in the 16th and 30th rounds, giving Heller 15 MLB Draft picks in four seasons.

In 2016, Heller’s team faced the toughest Big Ten Conference schedule, facing six of the eight Big Ten Tournament qualifiers. The Hawkeyes closed out the regular season with back-to-back series wins over Michigan State and Penn State to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament for a third straight season. The Hawkeyes carried that momentum into Omaha, where they won their first three games to advance to the Big Ten title game, and the Iowa faithful followed.

Hawkeye fans flocked to TD Ameritrade Park, as a pro-Iowa crowd 10,350 filled the stands to see the program’s first championship game appearance since 2010. Iowa fell just short of its second straight NCAA Regional bid, as Ohio State plated a ninth-inning run to hand the Hawkeyes an 8-7 defeat. Iowa ended the year with a 30-26 record, reaching the 30-win plateau for a third straight season — a first for the program since 1983-85.

Two Iowa players — outfielder Joel Booker and shortstop Nick Roscetti — earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at season’s end. They are the first Hawkeye duo since 2007 to receive first-team recognition in the same season. Heller has coached two first-team All-Big Ten shortstops in three seasons.

Booker led a resurgent Iowa offense that ranked in the top six of the Big Ten in virtually every offensive category as he emerged as a semifinalist for the Gregg Olson Breakout Player of the Year Award after tying for the Big Ten Conference lead in hits (87) and ranking in the top 12 in the league in eight offensive categories. Roscetti, meanwhile, was a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award.

Booker, Roscetti, and Tyler Peyton were selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft come season’s end. Booker was taken in the 22nd round by the Chicago White Sox, Roscetti in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, and Peyton in the 29th round by the Chicago Cubs.

Iowa’s pitching staff posted the second-best ERA (3.54) in program history and ranked in the top four in the Big Ten for a second straight season. Sophomore Nick Gallagher led the team with an 8-2 record and a 2.57 ERA to rank second in the league in wins and seventh in ERA. The Hawkeye defense was again its strong suit, finishing the season ranked in the top 15 nationally.

Iowa had a breakthrough season in Heller’s second season in Iowa City, going 41-18 with the 41 victories being the second-most all-time and just the fourth 40-win season in program history. Iowa earned the school’s first NCAA Regional berth since 1990, where it went 2-2 at the Springfield Regional for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1972.

The Hawkeyes rolled to a 15-5 start and won its first 11 series of the season, including a school-record eight consecutive Big Ten series wins dating back to the 2014 season. Iowa swept No. 19 Indiana to open Big Ten play to catapult the Hawkeyes into the national rankings for the first time in 25 years. Iowa climbed to as high as No. 13 before finishing the year 20th by Collegiate Baseball, 25th by Baseball America, and 28th by the NCBWA — the program’s first appearance in the final rankings in school history.

Heller guided Iowa to a Big Ten runner-up (three games ahead of the third place finisher) finish in a year where the league was at its all-time best with a record five NCAA Regional participants. Iowa went 19-5 in conference play for a .792 winning percentage — the best winning percentage by a second place team since the Big Ten returned to single division play in 1988.

In NCAA Regional play, Heller led the Hawkeyes to a pair of wins over Oregon in Springfield, Missouri, and lost two games to No. 8 national seed Missouri State by a combined three runs. Senior reliever Nick Hibbing was tabbed as the Springfield Regional’s Most Outstanding Player and was named to the all-tournament team.

Under Heller’s watch, Iowa had a pair of players earn three All-America distinctions, had a school-record six All-Big Ten selections, and a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award. Tyler Peyton earned third-team All-America honors as a utility from D1Baseball.com and the NCBWA, while starting pitcher Blake Hickman was a Louisville Slugger third-team All-American.

The Hawkeyes won with Hellerball — a term coined to highlight the team’s gritty style of play. Iowa’s pitching and defense both finished in the top 16 nationally (fielding percentage, 11th; ERA, 16th) in 2015 and the team had a never-say die attitude, posting six walk-off wins and going 18-9 in games decided by two runs or less.

The pitching staff shattered the school ERA record, posting a 2.95 ERA in 59 games and had a school-record 19 saves. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Hawkeye hurlers — a unit that had a 4.34 ERA with virtually the same cast in 2014.

At season’s end, five players had their name called in the 2015 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, tying a program record. Hickman was selected in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox, which, at the time was the highest Hawkeye draftee since 1999.

In his first season at the UI, Heller guided the Hawkeyes to a 9-1 start — the program’s best start since 1940 — a Big Ten Tournament berth and conference tournament win. Iowa finished the year with a 30-23 record for just the third 30-win season since 1993. The 30 victories are the most by a first-year coach in Iowa history.

Heller won his 700th career game in a 13-1 rout of Georgetown on March 15 at the Snowbird Classic in Florida. The Hawkeyes also took 2-of-3 games from Nebraska to open the Big Ten regular season — Iowa’s first conference-opening series win since 1998 and took 2-of-3 games against Minnesota for the first time since 2005.

Under Heller’s direction, Iowa became one of the most potent offensive teams in the Big Ten in 2014. The Hawkeyes led the conference in four offensive categories (batting average, hits, runs and on-base percentage) and ranked second in four more (slugging percentage, RBIs, home runs and total bases). Iowa finished with 23 home runs — a season after the team had two long balls in 49 contests.

Heller coached five student-athletes to All-Big Ten recognition, the most for the program since 2007. Junior shortstop Jake Yacinich garnered first-team All-Big Ten honors after ranking second in the league in batting average and steals. He was the first Iowa first-teamer since 2009.

Heller came to the UI after a strong four-year run at Indiana State. He led the Sycamores to their first outright Missouri Valley Conference championship in school history and back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 during the record-setting 2012 season. Indiana State finished 41-19, including a 14-7 record in conference play to claim the regular season crown and earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. The 41 wins were the most for the program since 1991.

Heller was named the 2012 Dan Callahan MVC Coach of the Year, while junior Jeremy Lucas earned the Joe Carter MVC Player of the Year award — the first student-athlete in ISU history to earn the league’s MVP — and junior Dakota Bacus was selected as the MVC Newcomer of the Year. Eight members of the team were named All-MVC. Following the season, two Sycamores were drafted in the top-12 rounds and a total of three signed contracts to begin their professional careers.

Heller led Indiana State to its fifth-consecutive winning season in 2013, and to a semifinal appearance in the MVC Tournament. The Sycamores, who finished 26-25 overall, had four players earn All-MVC honors, including Sean Manaea, the 34th overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. The draft selection was the second-highest in ISU baseball program history. Manaea became the 16th Sycamore to either be drafted or sign a professional free agent contract since Heller became head coach in 2009.

Heller led Indiana State to a 35-19 record in his first season in Terre Haute, Ind. — the most wins for any first-year coach in ISU baseball history — and a third place MVC finish. The Sycamores were one of two MVC teams to receive votes in the national polls during the season. In 2011, Indiana State went 29-28 and advanced to the semifinals of the MVC Tournament — its deepest run since 2002.

During his tenure at Northern Iowa, Heller’s teams won 270 games, including the 2001 Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA Regional Berth. While building the Panthers into an annual contender, Heller coached three MVC Most Valuable Players, one MVC Pitcher of the Year and helped put 22 players in professional baseball.

While at UNI, Heller’s teams broke a total of 57 team or individual records, including setting team records for hits, runs batted in, doubles and extra base hits during the 2001 season. Heller led the Panthers to four MVC tournaments, winning the championship in 2001. All-American Ryan Brunner claimed the league MVP award and All-American Nic Ungs was named Pitcher of the Year.

The Panthers recorded back-to-back 30-plus win seasons in 2001 and 2002 for the first time in school history and set the school single-season record with 35 wins in 2001. Heller also coached two Academic All-Americans in Brunner and Travis Welsch.

Before taking over the Northern Iowa program prior to the 2000 season, Heller spent 12 years as a head coach at Upper Iowa University, a Division III institution. While at Upper Iowa, Heller recorded a 291-194-3 overall record and was named the Iowa Conference Coach of the Year four times.

Heller won his first conference championship in 1993 — the first for Upper Iowa in 20 years — while advancing to the NCAA Division III Regionals. His team won the Iowa Conference title and advanced to NCAA Regionals again in 1995, finishing 19th in the national rankings as Heller won his third Coach of the Year honor.

He repeated Coach of the Year honors again in 1996 when the Peacocks won the Iowa Conference and Central Regional to advance to the NCAA Division III College World Series. His team finished the year ranked sixth nationally and he was named NCAA Division III Central Region Coach of the Year.

In 1997, his team was ranked seventh nationally in the pre-season poll and won the Iowa Conference Tournament. In 1998, his team was ranked as high as 10th nationally while finishing with a 38-8 record to set a school record for winning percentage (.826). His final UIU team finished 30-15-1 and finished third in the Iowa Conference while setting five school records.

As a player at Upper Iowa from 1982-86, he was a four-year starter at shortstop and he also lettered in football and basketball. He is a member of the Upper Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.

Heller is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association and serves on the ABCA All-American Committee. He is also a member of the Indiana and Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Associations. In 2008, he was inducted into the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

About the author, Bill

Bill Ballew has been involved with collegiate and professional baseball since 1983. He has been the Atlanta correspondent for Baseball America since 1991 and has served as the editorial content manager for Baseball The Magazine for more than five years. He is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA), National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).