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College : : Story
Iowa Surges into Big Ten Tournament
Jim Ecker    
Published: Monday, May 24, 2010

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The 21st Century has been especially cruel to Division I college baseball teams in Iowa.
Iowa State dropped its program in 2001,  Northern Iowa cut its program in 2009 and people wondered if the University of Iowa would be the third and final D-I program in the state to fold, especially after the Hawkeyes limped through a 16-35 campaign last season.
Finally, there’s a ray of hope.

The Iowa Hawkeyes finished the regular season on a hot streak and have made the Big Ten tournament that starts Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio. The Hawkeyes will face Purdue in the opening round, just a few days after sweeping the Boilermakers in a three-game series.
Iowa struggled for much of the Big Ten campaign and was sitting with a spotty 6-10 record in early May. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, only a few games separated the top teams from the bottom in the tight Big Ten race for most of the season, and when the Hawkeyes got hot, they got really hot.

Iowa went 7-1 in its last eight Big Ten games to finish 13-11 overall, tying Northwestern for third place and reaching the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2007 as the No. 4 seed.

“We’re hot at the right time, I guess you could say,” remarked Iowa center fielder Kurtis Muller, who went 10-for-14 in the three-game sweep of Purdue this past weekend. “We really showed what we’re capable of doing.”

The Hawkeyes fell to 19-24 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten with a 6-2 loss at Penn State on Friday, May 7. It looked like another disappointing season, but the Hawkeyes pulled together and rallied. Ryan Brownlee, one of Iowa’s assistant coaches, held a meeting in his hotel room after the Hawks lost to Penn State that day to clear the air.

“He brought all the hitters together and said, ‘What do we need to do to get this thing turned around?’” Muller related. “And we all came up with the same thing – we need to stay in the moment and play pitch-to-pitch, because there’s nothing more important than the present. We turned that into a team aspect and everybody bought in.”

It sounds simple, but it worked.

“The guys were searching for something to grasp onto, and they grasped onto it,” Iowa head coach Jack Dahm said. “It made all the difference in the world.”

The Hawkeyes won the last two games of their three-game series at Penn State, won 2-of-3 from Ohio State and swept the three-game set with Purdue to clinch a spot in the Big Ten tournament on the final day of the regular season.

Only two teams – Minnesota and Michigan – had secured playoff berths heading into the final day. The other four playoff spots were up for grabs, with six teams all having a chance. There was a lot of scoreboard watching on Saturday.

“I’ll tell you what, it was a race until partway through the game when I found out Michigan State had lost, and so we were in,” Dahm said after the Hawkeyes beat Purdue, 12-9.

It was one of the hottest – and oddest -- races in Big Ten history.

 “It was absolutely crazy. And it’s not because there aren’t good teams in the Big Ten,” Dahm said. “There’s just so much parity in the Big Ten and so many good teams that we beat each other up. Michigan State is probably the second-best team, besides Texas, that we played all year long, and they’re not in the Big Ten tournament. It tells you how tough our league is.”

Even though Dahm knew the Hawkeyes had clinched a spot in the playoffs, he kept the news to himself for a few innings during the game against Purdue. He finally shared the news when he went to the mound to make a pitching change in the eighth inning, calling for closer Keith Lee from the bullpen.

“I told the infielders and they starting laughing,” Dahm related. “And I said, ‘should I tell Kevin Lee?’ And they go, ‘No.’ They know he’s so good under pressure, so we didn’t tell Kevin. He had no idea.”

Lee finished the game for his 11th save of the season.

Now the Hawkeyes are going to the Big Ten playoffs, and the conversation has changed. Nobody is talking about Iowa possibly dropping its program, and nobody is talking about the possibility of Dahm being fired.

“People are always going to talk in baseball,” Dahm said. “We hear ‘Are you going to have a program?’ and whatever. I’m proud of this team, because they didn’t give in to any of that.”

Dahm has a 166-214 record in seven years at Iowa. If the Hawkeyes (27-26) finish the 2010 campaign with a winning record, it will be for only the second time during Dahm’s regime. He’s heard the whispers, but shrugged them off.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about these players.”

Dahm credits the entire team for what’s transpired this season, but had special praise for three players.

“A big credit goes to Tyson Blaser. His leadership skills this year have been off the charts, along with Curtis Muller and Zach McCool,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without those guys.”

Blaser, a hard-nosed catcher, is a fourth-year junior who’s battled a string of injuries during his career. He stayed healthy this season and slugged his first career homer in the final game against Purdue, a three-run shot that gave Iowa room to breathe for a while.

“It’s been really nice this year, being out on the field and just playing,” Blaser said. “And to end the season like we’ve done has been awesome.”

Blaser enjoys being a leader on the field and in the clubhouse.

“You know what, ever since I’ve been 8 years old I’ve been a catcher, and one thing I love about being behind the plate is all eyes are on you,” he said. “I like that pressure, and I like them looking to me for answers. And hopefully I’m doing all right with leading these guys.”
 
Blaser and the Hawkeyes have made the league tournament. Now they want more.

“We can’t be satisfied with making the Big Ten tournament,” Dahm said. “I told them, ‘We’ve got some unfinished business.’ The next goal is winning the Big Ten championship.”