A Utility Player
March 26, 2009
By Larry Watts
Even if the University of Iowa ends up not having all the tools for a successful run to the Big Ten title in 2009, the one Toole it does have should make things interesting for Hawkeye opponents.
Life at the top of the order is going well for the Hawkeye senior shortstop Justin Toole. During Iowa's latest five-game stretch, where they posted four wins, Toole was a catalyst to a number of rallies by banging out 11 hits in 20 appearances, lifting his batting average to .353. He scored nine runs, drove in six, collected a pair of doubles and even stroked his first home run of the year, matching his career high from his sophomore season.
Toole, who was named the Big Ten player of the week, admits he may have been the most surprised person in the park when he hit that home run during a 25-6 rout of Tennessee-Martin.
"I'm not a power hitter by any means," says Toole, who didn't hit a single home run in four years of varsity ball at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa despite the fact he was a three-time first team all-state selection. "I just go up there and try to hit line drives.
"Our hitting coach (Lee Brownlee) says if I hit a home run, it's a mistake. I just kind of let that go. When it happens, it certainly isn't preplanned or expected."
Toole, who is on the Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch List, is a hitter more in the Pete Rose fashion. Batting in the No. 9 slot as a sophomore, he proved to be no easy out with a .367 batting average, which included 11 doubles and 34 runs batted-in.
But that was just an audition for an amazing junior campaign, when Iowa head coach Jack Dahm alternated him between the first and third spots in the order. Toole responded with a .395 batting average, 15 doubles, 4 triples and 49 RBI. He set an Iowa record with hits in 25 consecutive games while his 87 hits were second-highest and his 63 runs ranked eighth in a single season for the Hawkeyes.
While not possessing a powerful bat, the two-time third team All-Big Ten selection believes there is plenty of room at the next level for a player who can spray the ball to all areas of the field.
"I think everyone who plays baseball has aspirations of playing professional baseball," he says. "You always want to work hard and strive for excellence.
"That would be a dream come true if I could get a shot at the minor leagues. I'd like to think they always have room for doubles hitters."
Toole attributes his addiction and growth in sports to his parents. His father was his high school baseball coach and his mother played softball and basketball at a community college. His sister, now a sophomore at Iowa Western, played softball and basketball while his younger brother is proving to be a pretty fair baseball player back in Council Bluffs.
"He's the one who got blessed with the good family genes," Toole says of his brother. "He throws right-handed and bats left. I've already been trying to sell coach Dahm on him."
With baseball as a summer sport, Toole was able to play four sports at Lewis Central. He was a wide receiver, cornerback and kicker on the football team. He played point guard in basketball and goalie in soccer. He gave up soccer as a junior so he could play travel baseball in the spring.
"My parents always preached to me that you can learn so much from sports through hard work and dedication," he says. "I developed a solid work ethic because it was just something that was valued in my family."
In addition to Iowa, Toole also checked out Nebraska, Creighton, Northern Iowa, Kansas State and Northern Illinois during the recruiting process. He claimed Iowa was the best fit when it came to combining both academics and athletics.
"Big Ten universities are known for their academics and Iowa offers a great psychology program, so it really became a no-brainer for me," says Toole, who is carrying a 3.1 grade-point average with a dual major in psychology and health and sports studies.
"If baseball doesn't work out for me, I think I would like to be a head baseball coach, strength and conditioning coach or work in the sports psychology field. I have to be around sports to keep my sanity. I've lived 22 years with sports in my life and I don't think I could live another one without it.
"If I go the sports psychologist route, I might as well get my doctorate," he added. "I have worked with a sports psychologist and he's done a lot to influence me to get me more interested in the field. I like the idea of traveling around and helping other athletes. I'd like to give back and help other athletes the same way I've been helped out."
A middle infielder all his life, Toole made the move to shortstop in the middle of last season after spending two-plus years at second for the Hawkeyes.
"I love to be involved in everything going on," he says. "Shortstop is like the quarterback on the football team, someone who controls the field and makes sure people are where they need to be. You get a lot of action at shortstop; it's not like playing the outfield, where you might end up standing around four or five innings before a ball gets hit to you."
As a captain for the Hawkeyes, Toole is focused on doing everything possible to get his team back on the winning track. Last year, the Hawkeyes finished dead last in the Big Ten (10-22) and failed to make the postseason tournament.
"I'm just trying to set the tone for the team with my hard work," he says. "There's no real secret to success, just work hard, do the right things and good things happen. We have a nice blend of veterans and young players on this team, so the best thing I can do is have good communication with them."