Feb. 19, 2007
In his fourth season with the Hawkeyes, Iowa Baseball coach Jack Dahm is looking to regain the form that led Iowa to the Big Ten Tournament with his deepest and most talented squad yet. With a solid nucleus of position players returning and a staff full of talented arms, the Hawkeyes are poised for a return to the upper half of the conference and a potential run at a Big Ten title.
"We are looking to take a big step forward this season," Dahm said. "We are very excited about the progress we made in every phase of the game during the offseason. Our goal is to battle for and win the Big Ten Championship every year. There are lots of questions surrounding the team, but they remind me a lot of the 2005 team, which was our most successful season to date."
For the Hawkeyes to have success in the 2007 season, they are going to have to get quality innings from some inexperienced arms. Iowa lost its top three starters from last year in Austin Seward, Jeff Maitland and Luke O'Loughlin, who combined for 34 starts and 211 1/3 innings pitched.
"Those three guys really separated themselves during the fall," Dahm said. "Conroy, Turnbull and Erdman all throw the ball very well, and they will all be deserving to get the ball that opening weekend."
Conroy made seven starts last year as a sophomore, including games against No. 4 Nebraska and the class AAA Iowa Cubs. He has good command of three pitches and pounds the strikezone.
"I am extremely impressed with David Conroy," Dahm said. "He has made strides both physically and mentally during the offseason, and he was a different pitcher this fall. David worked really hard over the summer, and has stepped up as a No. 1 starter."
Turnbull earned some experience last season as a freshman, making 15 appearances and starting four games during Big Ten play. He has one of the best arms on the team and the coaching staff feels he could turn into something special.
"Steve has the ability to be an outstanding pitcher in the Big Ten Conference," Dahm said. "We were able to get him some experience late last year, which is good because we are going to need him to throw a lot of innings for us."
The guy who has made the most progress for the Hawkeyes is Erdman. The sophomore threw a handful of innings last year, but was not at full strength while recovering from an injury suffered during high school basketball. Now healthy and in good shape, the coaches are looking to Erdman to give them a lot of quality innings this spring.
Another arm that could see the starting rotation is Andrew Porter, who spent two years at Black Hawk Community College, then took a redshirt year at IPFW before coming to Iowa.
"Porter has been a pleasant surprise for us," Dahm said. "He is a driven player who had a lot of success at Black Hawk Community College, then sat out last year at IPFW with an injury. He could contribute to the rotation or bullpen this year."
O'Rourke returns to the hill after sitting out last year battling testicular cancer. As a sophomore, O'Rourke was one of Iowa's top starters and threw 69 2/3 innings. Before getting his diagnosis last year, he was a Northwoods League All-Star and on pace to be Iowa's opening day starter.
"Casey got back on the mound this fall and his arm felt outstanding," Dahm said. "His only problem is building back his strength and endurance after all he has been through. He was going to be one of our top starters last year, and we are thrilled to have him back. His strength and endurance will dictate what role he plays on our staff this year."
Bales has missed the last two seasons due to injury, and the coaches are hoping for good things out of him this year.
Chase Stephens returns an experienced arm for the Hawkeyes, having made 12 appearances last year and recording 15 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings.
"We have a lot of quality arms to provide us with depth this year," Dahm said. "There are a lot of pitchers that could start or work out of the bullpen for us."
Like the starting rotation, the bullpen was hit hard by graduation. Two-time all-Big Ten closer Tim Gudex is now playing in the Texas Rangers' farm system, and late inning reliever Kevin Sunderman has graduated.
Junior Mike Schurz will attempt to fill the void left by Gudex in the closer's role. He transfers in from Radford University, and has all the tools to become a quality closer in the Big Ten.
"Mike brings Division I experience with him, and he stood out as one of our top pitchers in the fall," Dahm said. "We love his mentality. He is a high-energy guy who wants the ball late in the game. He has the makeup to get the last out."
Another key arm out of the bullpen will be that of Scott Brune, who is coming off a very successful junior campaign in which he posted a 1.88 ERA in 21 appearances.
"Brune is going to be very important to us early on because of his experience," Dahm said. "We know what we are going to get with him. He is a perfect fit or us in the middle relief and setup role - he gets a lot of ground balls and fields his position well."
Jason Belk will be looked at in the late innings as well, and brings what Dahm calls a "bulldog mentality" to the mound. While he was a closer in junior college, Belk will be used as a middle reliever or setup guy.
"Michael Jacobs and Kyle Heim made a lot of progress this fall and will give us some options out of the pen," Dahm said. "Jordan Auerbach and Patrick Schatz are both talented pitchers coming off injuries, but should be full strength by the spring."
"Sweet and Toole are both very valuable position players, but they also give us a lot of depth on the mound and some flexibility when putting together our travel roster," Dahm said.
Whereas the pitching staff will undergo a large makeover this year, there will be plenty of familiar faces in the infield. The Hawkeyes return most of their starting infield, which should serve as the foundation for the team.
At third base, sophomore Kevin Hoef returns after a solid rookie season in which he hit .295 with eight doubles and 12 stolen bases. Hoef also has built himself into one of the better defensive third basemen in the Big Ten.
"Hoef is an outstanding athlete, and plays an important part for us both offensively and defensively," Dahm said. "He just keeps making progress, and really competes at the plate. He can be a good middle of the order hitter for us."
Backing him up will be junior Kody McManis, who started ten games last year.
Senior Jason White returns at shortstop primed for a big season. White, who earned all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore at second base, hit .300 last year with eight doubles, five triples and 18 stolen bases. He will provide a steady glove and serve as Iowa's leadoff hitter this season.
"White had an outstanding summer and fall for us," Dahm said. "He is a tremendous athlete that keeps getting stronger. He will really set the tone for us this year."
At second base, sophomore Justin Toole has continued to develop and will enter the season as the starter. He has a great glove and a good feel for the game, and should combine with White for a potent double play combination.
Also in the mix will be Ryan Gryzwa, who made nine starts at second base last season. The Chicago native is extremely versatile and could see action at third base or in the outfield.
"Wes has a lot of ability, and we feel he can step up and be a middle of the order run producer," Dahm said. "We also see him becoming an outstanding defensive first basemen after playing shortstop in high school."
The Hawkeyes come into the season with a roster stacked with talented catchers, and the position looks to be a strength of the 2007 team.
After playing first base as a freshman and splitting time between first and catcher last year, junior Dusty Napoleon enters the season as Iowa's No. 1 catcher. He finished last year with a team-high 34 RBIs, and the coaches say he enters this season in the best shape of his life.
"Dusty does a great job handling the staff and gives us the intangibles that you love in a catcher," Dahm said. "He has really stepped up to be the leader of the team."
Splitting time with Napoleon will be Ben Geelan, who started 29 games behind the plate last year. Geelan is coming off an injury suffered during summer league play, so the coaches will bring him along slowly this year.
Tyson Blaser is another talented young catcher, and Coach Dahm sees a lot of Napoleon's qualities in the freshman. He will see playing time behind the plate this year.
There will be some new faces in the outfield this year, as the Hawkeyes lost several players to graduation and the professional ranks.
Junior Travis Sweet moves from second base to centerfield, where he will replace two-year starter Nate Price, who is playing in the Cubs organization. Sweet led the team with a .304 batting average last season, including eight doubles and 27 RBIs. He also had a team-high 22 stolen bases.
"Sweet is a great athlete with a strong arm who can run, so we think he can become a very good centerfielder," Dahm said. "He played some outfield for us last year, but he is still learning to make all the right decisions in center."
In leftfield, the Hawkeyes will look to junior college transfer Caleb Curry. Curry came to Iowa as a shortstop, but has good baseball instincts and a lot of speed.
"Curry is an outstanding athlete who is extremely fast," Dahm said. "He was a very good junior college shortstop - starting the Northwoods League All-Star Game - and we think he can develop into a very good outfielder for us."
The coaching staff expects both Sweet and Curry to go through a bit of a learning curve in the outfield, but is confident they will quickly turn into dependable outfielders.
Matt Wooldrik will return to rightfield for the Hawkeyes, where he started 17 games last year. He is the best defensive outfielder on the team, and should provide a steady presence alongside two new faces.
"Woody is just Steady Eddie for us," Dahm said. "He does everything well, and knows his role on the team."
Another player looking for playing time in the outfield is Kyle Riffel, who joined the team last year after two years on the football team. He is a strong athlete who just needs at bats to produce.
The Hawkeyes will once again face a very daunting schedule, including an early stretch with seven-of-eight games coming against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.
Iowa starts with a three-game series at Arkansas-Little Rock, then head to the Stetson Tournament where they will take on Stetson, along with nationally ranked Nebraska and Notre Dame.
The Hawkeyes then head to Fresno for four games with Fresno State and two with Dallas Baptist.
During Big Ten play, Iowa hosts Penn State, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, and travels to Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue.
Non-conference highlights include a trip to Nebraska and the fourth annual Corridor Classic against Northern Iowa at Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.