IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa baseball players moved to the edge of their seat when the LSU Regional popped onto the projection screen. Once four other teams filled the bracket, groans filled the Feller Club Room.
Iowa is an underdog. The team knows no one else in the postseason expects much out of them. So they decided to embrace it.
They Hawkeyes openly rooted for the toughest, nastiest and farthest away regionals during the NCAA Tournament selection show on Monday.
They got their wish, heading to the Houston Regional. No. 4 seed Iowa opens tournament play against No. 1 seed Houston (40-19) on Friday (8 p.m., ET, ESPNU). Baylor (34-21) is the No. 2 seed and Texas A&M (36-21) is the No. 3 seed.
“We are going to play in a great atmosphere, three Texas teams and we are going to be in Houston,” Iowa outfielder Robert Neustrom said. “There will be a lot of fans there. It will probably be hostile. I am pretty excited.”
Making the NCAA Tournament isn’t easy. Iowa learned it last year, falling one win short in the Big Ten Tournament championship from a second straight regional appearance. This year, Iowa won four games in four days to capture the Big Ten Tournament championship.
It’s nothing compared to a regional where four elite teams enter and only one moves on to the Super Regionals. The Hawkeyes knew their postseason path would be hard, so they wanted to walk down the road with the biggest reward.
Houston fits the team’s criteria. The Cougars won the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They are 13th nationally with a 3.37 ERA, led by ace Trey Cumbie (1.88 ERA). The offense is explosive, too, hitting .290, and led by Jake Schneiner (.347 average, 17 home runs and 57 RBIs).
“Might as well knock out the hardest one first,” Josh Martsching said.
The attitude is an extension of manager Rick Heller’s postseason philosophy.
“At this time of the year, it doesn’t really matter who you play,” Heller said. “It just matters who is playing well and who is not. It really doesn’t matter what the name on the uniform says and that’s how we go about our business.”
Iowa doesn’t know much about Houston, Baylor or Texas A&M, which have made 10 College World Series appearances combined.
The Hawkeyes will learn plenty in the coming days, but it takes a backseat to remembering what got them to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“We try to take care of ourselves first,” Heller said. “If we do that generally good things happen. You saw that this weekend.”
The Hawkeyes believe they head to Houston with more than a puncher’s chance. The pitching staff came around during the conference tournament, carrying the team to the title. The bats, especially that of Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams, put it together late, scoring 13 runs and belting 14 hits in the championship game.
Iowa players call how they play “Hellerball,” an ode to the head coach. It got the Hawkeyes this far. They aren’t going to change now.
It’s why they were seeking a regional in California or against a power. Now, they will see how far it takes them.
“We are going to be the underdogs like we’ve been all year,” Adams said. “We feel comfortable going in there. They aren’t expected to do a whole lot from us and they may expect us to fold a little bit. We have to take advantage of that and keep putting pressure on them.”