The No. 3 spot in the UW-La Crosse baseball lineup has been a double-edged sword for Eagles junior Nate Heili.
He’s experienced the best parts of it, producing runs that help the team win, and the tough parts of that role — opponents trying to dodge his bat.
But Heili has been a consistent force for La Crosse this season, even as it has had a condensed second half of the season due to snow and rain postponing games. La Crosse, which is 23-12 overall and 13-7 in a rugged WIAC, will need him this weekend as it faces conference leader UW-Whitewater (28-5, 17-3). The Warhawks are ranked No. 1 nationally by d3baseball.com, and will be at Copeland Park Friday and Saturday for a pair of doubleheaders that will go a long way to determining if the Eagles see the postseason.
Expect Heili to be a part of any winning the Eagles may do this weekend, as he’s proven to be a catalyst for the La Crosse lineup. He’s batting .310 with a team-best 45 hits, five home runs, 38 runs scored, 12 steals and 23 walks drawn. He’s second on the team with 31 RBI, and has been clutch in high-leverage situations.
“I had the 3 hole last year, too, so I know that’s a role where you have to produce runs,” Heili said. “I try not to think about it too much, but when the opportunity presents itself, I try to drive those runs in.
“I’ve stepped up into that role.”
Heili is hitting .455 with runners in scoring position, has 15 two-out RBI, and is advancing runners at a nearly 60 percent clip. He’s been a rally-starter and extender for the Eagles, even as the rest of the conference has seen enough of him to know his holes.
After coming to La Crosse from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., Heili had to take a medical redshirt season as a freshman to heal an arm and shoulder injury. He said the year off helped him acclimate to college life and learn how to compete with pitchers at the NCAA Division III level.
When he got on the field the following spring, he was low in a batting order that featured some of the best players UW-L has ever had like Taylor Kohlwey and Justin Anderson. Eagles coach Chris Schwarz said while Heili was hitting eighth or ninth, he proved valuable in turning the lineup over and getting on-base in front of those top guys.
As that crop moved on, Heili had to fill their shoes in the middle of the lineup.
“Last year was an interesting year for him transitioning into that,” Schwarz said. “It’s easy being the freshman hitting 9 … there’s no pressure. There was more pressure last year, and he learned how to deal with that.”
Even when he initially struggled, Schwarz said Heili’s grind-it-out mentality didn’t change, and that was crucial in his development.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or if your team is good or bad, that guy in the 3 hole just gets pitched differently,” Schwarz said. “He’s had his good and bad days with it, but he’s mentally handled it really well.”
Heili stands 6-foot-5, but had been on the lankier side throughout his career.
However, he said a better understanding of nutrition and the strength training program at UW-L has helped him put on weight and add more power to his swing. After hitting just one home run a season in his first two years, he’s got five this season. He could add more this weekend, too, as he’s hit four of his big flies at Copeland Park.
“In those power counts, I think it’s just really getting behind the baseball and driving it with backspin,” Heili said. “The swing feels the same, I think it just pops off the bat a lot faster, I’ve noticed.”
The Eagles will need at least one, if not a couple, wins this weekend to move from the bubble into one of the 16 at-large bids into the NCAA regional tournament. And after a career of making his mark in a variety of ways, Heili can do so again with a big series against the Warhawks.
“I think (my season’s) been a combined effort of trying to become a better hitter, knowing how pitchers are going to pitch against me.”