Willis' speed and power leads baseball into Lincoln tonight

BY SETH ROBERTS | APRIL 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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Trevor Willis can fly.

Iowa's senior centerfielder has legged out seven triples this year, which ties him for third in the country. He leads the Hawkeyes in stolen bases, with 11 in 14 opportunities. He has been superb in Banks Field's spacious outfield, where he has chased down 97 putouts and pegged 10 assists.

In other words, head coach Jack Dahm's leadoff hitter has cemented himself as one of the most productive players in the Big Ten.

"You look at Trevor, and he's a little bit of a unique leadoff hitter in college baseball from the standpoint that he's got extra-base power," Dahm said. "His speed allows him to steal bases, he's a threat to lay down the drag bunt — he's got so many weapons from an offensive standpoint. It's nice to have him as our leadoff guy."

Willis showed flashes of his offensive potential last year, when he hit .261 and led the team with five home runs while batting eighth in the lineup. He cranked two of those big flies in a crucial May 21 win over Purdue that helped propel the Hawkeyes into the Big Ten Tournament.

Now one of just three Iowa players with at least 50 at-bats to be hitting over .300 for the year (he's hitting .306), the Homer Glen, Ill., native said the combination of his offensive production at the end of last season and a successful summer playing in the Prospect League gave him the confidence to succeed at the top of the lineup.

"Hitting is a big confidence thing," the 21-year-old said. "You have to be comfortable with yourself and be confident in how much work you put in during the off-season. If you're confident at the plate, you will most likely have at least quality at-bats."

Those quality at-bats have boosted his career batting average 30 points to .254, and he has accomplished the feat while adjusting to a new leadership role with the team. The 6-3, 190-pound Willis, who spent most of his time in left field last season but shifted over to center this year after Kurtis Muller was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, said the main challenge has been being more vocal and directing traffic in the field.

Iowa reliever Kevin Lee, another member of what Dahm called a closely knit group of seniors, said he has been impressed with how easily his lanky teammate made what could have been a difficult transition.

"Coming into the season, people might have said he would have trouble taking over Kurtis' spot," Lee said. "[Willis] could have backed down, and his numbers could have dropped, but I don't think the change to center field has really affected him that much. He's taken it in stride."

He still isn't perfect, though. Willis leads the team with 34 strikeouts, meaning he eliminates himself once every four at-bats. He said he doesn't worry about the punchouts very much, and Dahm said the coaching staff has stopped bringing them up as well.

"That's something we had talked about with Trevor for the past four years, [but] we haven't really talked about it this year," Dahm said. "The more we harped on that in previous years, the more he got worried about it, and it got in his head … What we tried to do is get him to get his pitch and drive it, and he's done a lot better job with two strikes of fouling off pitches and doing some good things."

That approach appears to have paid off, although it might be difficult for Willis to add to his impressive numbers tonight at Nebraska (25-26). The Cornhuskers are 16-6 at home in Hawks Field, while the Hawkeyes have been struggling to string hits together and are 4-6 over their last 10 games.

"We just need to stay behind each other and keep our confidence levels up," Willis said. "I don't think we're in any situation to get down on one another … if you think good things are going to happen, then they probably are. We'll be all right."

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