In early May last season, the Iowa baseball team was treading water at 19-25 and headed for its sixth losing season in seven years under coach Jack Dahm.
Then the Hawkeyes caught fire, winning the next eight of nine to earn a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, where they advanced to the championship game for just the second time (1983) in program history.
“My first three years here weren’t too successful,” senior pitcher Kevin Lee said. “It was just a breath of fresh air last year.
“This year the expectations, I believe, are higher from last year. We’re pushing for that much more. Our minimum goal is to win the Big Ten.”
That’s a heck of a minimum for a program that hasn’t won a title in 20 years. But after finishing third last season, it may be one within reach.
“It’s an exciting time right now,” Dahm said. “We have some expectations within the program we haven’t had in previous years.”
Iowa returns 21 letterwinners, losing two full-time starters, and has one of the deepest pitching staffs in the Big Ten.
“Our pitching has gotten better,” Dahm said. “When we first got here, we had one guy throwing over 84 mph. We wanted to try and go out and get power arms. The problem is the powers arms we could get had no secondary stuff.
“The guys we’re bringing in now, they are power arms but have a good feel for secondary stuff.”
The leader of the pitching staff is Jarred Hippen, who went 6-4 last year with a 3.71 ERA. Nick Brown made nine starts, Matt Dermody seven and Zach Kenyon four.
Lee returns after recording 13 saves last season.
“What really clicked last year was our pitching,” Dermody said. “Some guys got totally shelled, but in other games, they pitched really well, and we started to win.”
It could be a year for pitching, too, with college baseball starting to use a new type of aluminum bat that is more like a wood bat.
“If you hit it on the sweet spot, it’s going to go, but if you don’t square it up, there is a difference,” senior catcher Tyson Balser said. “You won’t see any more doubles off the inside part of the bat, or the end of the bat, unless they are bloopers.
“I think the game is going to be more true. Pitchers definitely like it.”
Zach McCool (.346) and Mike McQuillan are the top returning hitters (.344), but the Hawkeyes will have to find some bats to replace Kurtis Muller, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 22nd round, and Ryan Durant.
Iowa opens play at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge against West Virginia on Feb. 18 in Florida. The Hawkeyes open at home March 25 against Western Illinois and start their Big Ten schedule April 1.
That’s about six weeks to try and find the energy they captured at the end of the 2010 season.
“We figured some things out that were lacking the past few years,” Balser said. “Before we’d get on the field, get down a few runs, and kind of give in. Last year, we’d get down a few runs and it’s no big deal.
“We came to the realization that we can play with anyone out there. I think that will carry over to this year.”