Inside Pitch: Iowa plays its high school baseball season in the summertime; advantage or disadvantage?
Rick Heller: I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. We do the traditional travel ball weekends, but we’re going out and seeing games as soon as we get back from Atlanta or Indianapolis. Speaking as the head coach, it’s great to be able to get out and see a bunch of teams play and get to know the high school coaches well. But I can be the one that hits the road in-state, which is a tremendous advantage because there is some loyalty that kicks back to us—players and coaches see the head coach at a lot of the games, and they have for years and years. So when a player pops up late or there’s a sleeper, not a lot of other people are going to know other than us, in most cases. It has helped us a great deal over the years, as we have been able to sign several good players in the summer that were late bloomers. This probably wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t playing high school baseball in the summer.
IP: How have you been able to get the most out of your teams?
RH: In my first job at Upper Iowa, we knew early on that we had to do a great job of developing players if we were going to have chance to win. Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, I’ve always focused on what we had control over—recruit hard and try to be the best at developing those players you get, both on and off the field. This is something I’ve always felt was an advantage for our teams, and we have worked tirelessly to keep it that way. I’m a guy who loves to learn and be on the cutting edge and I still am—we are always trying to tweak our system and find ways to help our players improve, reach their potential, and maximize our chance to win games and compete for championships along the way.
Desi Druschel, who is an amazing coach and innovator, came on staff. When he was the head coach at Mount Mercy College, he was buying cameras on eBay and had them all over his field, and it wasn’t eyewash, he was breaking it down and really utilizing it. Desi was one of the first ones to have Kyle Boddy visit before Driveline really took off. So Desi and I were a great fit, we challenged each other with new ideas and ways to make our program better, like the manager program.
IP: How did you get your manager program started?
RH: What really got us started here was when we made a Regional that Oregon was also in, when George Horton was the head coach. I happened to see them get off the bus and there are all these people and I’m like, “Who are these guys? Are they players? They’re not players, are they?” I grabbed George and he said, “Oh, that’s our manager program. We’ve got a bunch of them and we do this and that, and they’re able to help us here and there.” I’m thinking, “man, that’s a great idea.”
So, Desi and I got the ball rolling. We put some feelers out there into the Business Analytics, Sports Management and Math departments. We were able to get some super bright and creative kids to come aboard and help us. It was just amazing to see how much more we were able to do and how far we could take things with these awesome kids helping us and doing projects.
When Desi was hired away by the Yankees, I brought in Robin Lund who was a great friend of mine and has a doctorate in exercise science. He was also a tenured professor with a background in strength and conditioning, but ultimately he decided to jump back into baseball. He really took the manager program to another level; with his background as a professor, he was able to really teach, mentor and challenge those managers.
IP: How do you handle all the turnover you’ve had to manage?
RH: It’s not easy! We’ve had about a dozen coaches move on in my first 10 years here. The great thing is that they all left a ton of valuable information and helped raise the bar for the program. You see some programs take a step back when they lose a great coach. We lost two coaches in November of 2022 and we had one of the best years in school history the following spring.
I can tell you that not losing Associate Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Marty Sutherland during my tenure here is a big reason we are where we are. Marty played for me at UNI and was my assistant there for seven years in addition to the run here at Iowa. He is one of the best in college baseball and does an outstanding job. As far as our players, I think it says a lot about the culture of our program how they have been able to welcome and trust the new coach who comes in and keep moving forward.
IP: Can you realize during the season that you've got something special going on? Or is there always an element of trying to keep pushing your team forward?
RH: When we didn’t get selected in 2022, we felt like we should have been in, so our 2023 team was extremely motivated. We hadn’t gotten off to a great start in 2022, so we could start focusing on being better prepared, being more ready to go when the season began. That was our mission from day one.
I felt by October that we had a chance to be pretty special, they came together quickly, brought energy every day, had outstanding leaders, and got off to the best start in school history [19-3]. Unfortunately, we had some things happen and we lost some good players as a result, but I still believe that if you look how that team finished, even losing those guys, it tells you a lot about the character and the toughness of the group that we had, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
IP: The players you lost as a result of the gambling investigation that was conducted, which was largely unprecedented…
RH: Yeah, for the most part I’ve been quiet about sharing my feelings, but it’s an elephant in the room for the entire country. If what happened to our guys happened to most any other team, in any other sport, regardless of the level, they’re going to lose a bunch of players as well. I’m sure there is plenty of education on every campus on gambling, I just know that this isn’t an isolated case and that what happened here is happening in virtually every program across our country.
IP: This was a March Madness bracket?
RH: We still don’t even know. I suppose it’s safe to assume that it was pro sports and college sports. What I was told was that it wasn’t college baseball or our team. If the statistics say that a majority of college-aged students are gambling on sports, it’s safe to say that college athletes are doing it as well. [Editor’s note: researchers say 67% of all college students have bet on sports (National Council on Problem Gambling, 2023)]. My message to all the coaches reading this is that it serves as a wake-up call. This one blindsided me.
IP: How are you supposed to handle that as a coach?
RH: The first thing we did was talk with our team and focus on controlling what we could control. We had a game in less than two hours when we had that talk, that the ‘next man up’ would come in and get the job done; that we couldn’t let this derail a great season and that we still had a shot at the regular season title. And like everything else in our program: no excuses.
The first question I asked the players who were involved was “where did we fail you? What could I have done to prevent this?” They said, “nothing, Coach, we knew. It’s that we just didn’t think we could get caught. That it wasn’t that big of deal. All our friends do it. All our friends on other teams do it.’
I've had a dozen from other schools call me and say, “I'm sorry you're having to go through this. If this happened to us, it would be catastrophic.” Coaches and administrators can use this as an example of what can happen, and maybe some players stop and ask themselves, “is this worth the risk?” It’s become so commonplace in our society that the athletes aren’t afraid of getting caught because they are of legal gambling age and their mindset is, “It’s not illegal for other kids my age, so how can I get caught?”
IP: We’ve talked planning, recruiting, staffing and off the field issues. How about some actual baseball—where do you find time for implementing the basics, the fundamentals, considering all the resources you have?
RH: I tell the assistants when they come in, all of our toys are great, but it has to supplement actual baseball skills. At the end of the day, you still have to play catch, you still have to throw strikes, and you still have to have a plan on offense. That stuff has never changed, and that’s what I try to explain, is that we haven’t stopped hammering those things, that’s still at the very core of our program.
Number one is defense; we aim to lead the country in fielding percentage every year. We want to play at an elite level. A good defense really elevates the pitching staff, which has really taken off for us lately. Pitching and defense is going to win you a bunch of games and give you a chance to compete for a championship.
On the offensive side, we made a concerted effort to be as organized and detailed as anyone in the country. As a Northern school, the weather dictates a lot of your offense. You can’t just be a power team that can’t play the short game when the wind’s blowing in. We want to run, we want to play the short game, and we want to have power. We hammer the basics, but we’re incorporating vision training, pitch recognition, movement screening, overload-underload training, cognitive testing and—most importantly—buying into a solid plan to dominate the zone. We want our on-base percentage over .400, we want to steal some bags when we’re supposed to, we want to walk more than we strike out.
It’s about development, every single day.
IP: You certainly had all three phases working really well in ’23, even though the pitching was a little non-traditional…
RH: We’d gotten decimated by the draft the last two years, but we still had some guys with great stuff that were still a work in progress in terms of command. So we had to make a decision on how we were going to implement them. If we didn’t start them, were we going to use them in leverage roles? Probably not.
Starting gave them a chance to develop, build confidence and succeed. They could get into a great routine during the week with training and bullpens, they had the pitching coach with them as they prepared for the game, and they could pitch in as controlled a setting as there is in our game.
And it worked great—they improved to the point where they were getting us into the sixth, seventh inning of games, which was huge, because as you and I both know, it’s not pro ball where you just can run guys out and if you lose, you lose. That’s what I think a lot of people don’t understand and we know all too well, a loss in March could keep you out of the tournament in May. For us, every single game is a playoff game.