Return of the conquering hero

BY CHARLIE GREEN | JUNE 22, 2015 5:00 AM

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When the Cincinnati Reds selected Iowa junior Tyler Peyton in the 33rd round of the MLB draft on June 10, he decided to temporarily pass on the pursuit of his lifelong dream to return for his senior year at Iowa.

For a Hawkeye program fresh off its first postseason victory in 43 years, the return of one of its top players could have major implications for the 2016 season.

“It’s huge for our program,” head coach Rick Heller said. “If Tyler had signed, we would have lost our Friday-night starter and our best returning hitter.”

Amid a barrage of lost players, Peyton leads a core of Hawkeyes poised to make another run next year.

Heller’s squad graduated nine seniors — four of whom major-league teams selected earlier this month.

Offensively, that includes outfielders Eric Toole (22nd round to Pittsburgh) and Kris Goodman (32nd round to Miami.). Toole’s .306 batting average ranked second on the team this past season, and Goodman’s 3 home runs tied for the team’s high.

In addition, graduated seniors Nick Day, Jake Mangler, and Dan Potempa also leave a void in the batter’s box.

But Peyton’s .337 batting average led the team in 2015, as did his slugging (.417) and on-base percentage (.439) for players with at least 100 at-bats.

“In the fall, when guys come back, we’re just going to have to stick to our roles and have some new guys come in and step up and fill roles,” Peyton said. “The recruiting class we have is really solid. Some guys are going to have to step up — that goes for returners as well.”

That class is ranked as the Big Ten’s best by Perfect Game USA. In addition to a slew of incoming high-school talent, the class includes junior-college transfer Mason McCoy.

The return of Peyton, who also hopes to earn a degree in sports studies, is just as pivotal for pitching as it is for the offense. Junior right-handed pitcher Blake Hickman is off to the pros after the Chicago White Sox selected him in the seventh round, leaving a gap in the weekend rotation.

Also gone is senior Nick Hibbing, the hero of the team’s postseason run in the bullpen.

“I think guys like Ryan Erickson could step up and be a weekend starter,” Peyton said. “And I know we’ll have a good bullpen.”

Sunday starter and junior Calvin Matthews, who complied a 2.45 ERA in 15 starts, will be back for his senior season. The addition of Erickson would give the Hawks a left-handed option on the mound. The junior went 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA last season in relief duty.

Junior Luke Vandermaten should give Iowa confidence in the absence of Hibbing and possibly Erickson from the bullpen. Last season, he compiled a 1.06 ERA in 22 appearances.

Incoming freshmen Cole Baker and Chris Comito Jr. also give the team options in the pitching staff, which looks like it could once again be the team’s strength in 2016.

Even with all the departures, Peyton’s experience and proven ability from the batter’s box and the mound make some of the question marks a little less concerning.

And now as one of the oldest players on the team, he will try to bring his role as a leader to another level.

“I think Tyler’s grown a lot in his two years, and this will be his year to be more vocal as a leader,” Heller said. “He already does a good job of leading by example; he works hard, and obviously, we’ve seen how he plays.

“He’s going to need to make sure he does a great job of helping the young players get acclimated.”

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