In telling his Iowa baseball team that its 10-5 season had ended, thrown an unexpected curveball by concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic that halted college seasons from coast to coast, Rick Heller found himself dealing with a flashback.
The Hawkeye coach described the scene on March 12 as eerily similar to the one he dealt with when Northern Iowa ended the baseball program he was leading in 2009 because of budget difficulties.
"When I had to tell the team that day it was over, that was awful. I haven’t had many worse in my career, the UNI decision day, for sure," Heller said. "It was really difficult to gather your thoughts together and do it in a proper way."
"Basically, it was matter of fact, here’s the deal. I told them we have no control over this, but it’s just been announced that our season is over. There is no more baseball. Kids were crying, hugging. It was awful."
It all came down in a whirlwind, a day after the Hawkeyes had won a 3-1 game to complete a two-game sweep of Kansas at Duane Banks Field.
Before lunch on that Thursday, Iowa players were packing their bags to board a late-afternoon flight for a three-game weekend series at Cal-Northridge.
By mid-afternoon, the trip was off and plans were being made for a weekend filled with scrimmages in Iowa City.
By sunset a season that had started with so much promise, three early-season wins over ranked teams and victories in seven of its final eight games, was over.
Adding to the frustration of it all was the progress Heller had seen the Hawkeyes make during its first month of competition.
"We played well at times, really well at times," he said. "We had a couple of games early on in the first six, eight games where we had a major letdown, but we bounced back and played well. It was coming together."
Heller expected pitching to be a season-long strength of this Iowa team.
He saw that. He saw it complemented by consistently strong defensive efforts and offense that was beginning to come around just when the season was halted.
"We were in a really good place," Heller said.
For the past two weeks, Heller has had time to think about it all, plenty of time.
"It’s really a weird feeling going from a hundred miles an hour to zero and like everyone else being taken out of your norm," Heller said. "I’m just trying to do some exercise, some reading, some self-help stuff."
The seventh-year Hawkeye coach has been trying to stay in communication with his players as well.
Text messages, phone calls, whatever it takes.
"Just trying to get a grip on what our next moves will be," Heller said Thursday. "There really isn’t a whole lot we can do right now other than sit here and wait to get some sort of ruling on what’s going to happen."
The NCAA could shed some light on that next week when its council meets to discuss whether spring sports athletes should be given an extra year of eligibility following the cancellation of the season.
With rosters currently limited to 35 players overall, 27 receiving some sort of limited scholarship assistance, and another class of incoming freshmen factoring into the mix beginning this summer, Heller has concerns about how the numbers may all work out.
Heller said he has had informal discussions with Iowa seniors about whether they would be interested in returning next spring, just to get them thinking about what they might choose to do and discussing potential scenarios with their families.
"People sometimes forget that baseball isn’t a full scholarship sport. Our players are paying more to be here than we are paying them in the form of a partial scholarship to be here," Heller said. "…. Right now, we’re not trying to get too far ahead of the cart with no ruling at this point."
The Big Ten has eliminated any possibility of organized team activities at this point and with online classes scheduled to begin for Iowa students next week following an extended spring break, most Hawkeye players have returned to their hometowns.
Scattered from Arizona to Indiana, Heller will bring his team together today for the first time since the Hawkeyes learned that the season had ended.
It will be the first in a series of weekly team video conferences.
Heller’s message will center on academics and the need for Iowa players to finish out the semester strong with their academic work even if they don’t have the opportunity to put together the type of season they dreamed about on the field.
"My main concern, honestly, is that they’ll do their work and be disciplined and get into a routine with their online classes and their video classes," Heller said. "You don’t want them to throw up their hands and go, ‘Wheeee, school’s out, I don’t have to go to class.’ As a head coach, I probably have to worry about that more than what you guys think."
Beginning next week, the Hawkeyes will participate in smaller video sessions hosted by Iowa assistant coaches.
They will mirror in-season meetings, including five, six, seven players and the talk will extend beyond baseball.
Until the Hawkeyes have a chance to return to the clubhouse at Banks Field and share a workout, something that is not currently allowed, Heller said that routine will continue.
"There is going to be a day when this team is back together," Heller said. "I still believe that and we’ll find a way to do that at some point in time."
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