Getting lucky in Las Vegas has a different meaning for Travis Hergert.
Every July since 2013, The North Iowa Area Community College baseball coach has taken a recruiting trip to either Las Vegas or Oregon. One of his objectives: Evaluate players from the Perth Heat Colts, an Australian baseball team that barnstorms up and down the West Coast every summer before ending their trip in Las Vegas.
The concentrated pool of international talent makes it a worthwhile venture, but Hergert's connection with Perth coach Steve Fish has turned the annual trip to a surefire success on the recruiting trail.
There are eight Australian baseball players in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference. NIACC has four of them. No other team has more than one.
“Everyone’s got their little honey hole, as I call it, that they go to, and (Australia) has been ours,” Hergert said.
Australian players have contributed to the Trojans' success, particularly since Hergert became the team's coach in 2013. Robbie Glendinning and Troy Bullingham, each from Perth, Western Australia, sit atop the Trojans' all-time leaderboard in hits. Lucas Bakker, a pitcher from Deception Bay in Queensland, is NIACC's all-time wins leader.
Liam Taylor, Shane Kelleher, Jarod Large and Kyle Pike are among the Australian transports on this year's roster. Most of the aforementioned players have made their way to NIACC with Fish acting as the most significant connection between Australia and North Iowa.
Hergert and Smith first met at a San Diego coaches convention in 2009. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Fish had a successful pitching career at the University of Nebraska, launching him into the 22nd round of the 1997 MLB Draft. His playing career peaked at the minor-league level of the then-Anaheim Angels organization. When playing was no longer an avenue, he shifted to coaching.
“This was back in the day of DVDs,” Hergert said of their initial meeting in San Diego. “He was like, ‘I got a stack of DVDs for ya, of kids who wanna come to the states.’
"And then I would get to see these kids play. I’d get to meet with them in person, sell our program, and it seemed like every year we’d have three or four."
This season's four-player batch of Australians has made a significant impact during the past two years. Kelleher, one of NIACC's leading hitters, is batting .278 with 14 RBIs and 21 runs scored. He was among the most successful Trojans last year, hitting .325.
Large boasted a 3.25 ERA over 44 2/3 innings in 2017 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He's slated to return during the upcoming four-game series against Southeastern, which begins with a doubleheader Sunday.
Kelleher was driving to work in his blue Chevy Cruz a few years ago when he saw an email notification pop up on his phone. It was Hergert, sending his pitch for Kelleher to join the Trojans. Kelleher said NIACC has an incredibly positive reputation in Australia, which made his decision easy.
"Not only in Australia, but I’d say everywhere now," Kelleher said. "I went and played summer ball in Florida, and there was kids who were like, ‘Oh, you kids are from NIACC; you must be pretty good.’ So it’s good to see that everywhere in the states, NIACC is getting recognition."
Kelleher, originally from Wattle Grove, a suburb of Sydney, said he played and practiced about twice a week back home. Here, he practices nearly every day, with games scattered throughout the week.
"It’s kinda just baseball and school here," Kelleher said. "There’s no distractions, which is really good. It’s something I wanted."
Pike, a sophomore infielder from Gold Coast, also lauded the tradition of Aussies opting to play at NIACC. However, that knowledge wasn't as important as the opportunity to exit his comfort zone and experience something unknown.
"It’s always good to get the experience, being away from home and having to be out on your own," Pike said. "But it definitely helps having them around, for sure."
The camaraderie and success on the diamond validates their decision to come overseas, but their experience in North Iowa isn't without adversity. Players essentially commit to nine months away from home, as some aren't able to go back during the holidays to see their families. Many never see snow before their first Iowa winter. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the devaluation of the Australian Dollar, which is equal to about 70 cents in the United States.
In essence, if an Australian comes to the United States with $1,000, that money is worth only about $700.
"It definitely makes it tough; you gotta be pretty smart with your money decisions," Pike said. "As much as it’s not yours, you still kinda feel bad your parents are forking out money, and they’re losing it more than you are, so it definitely makes it tough."
Those hardships are difficult to maneuver at times, but it hasn't stopped the steady stream of talent from joining Hergert's squad. His go-to spots include the Twin Cities, Chicago, and of course, various cities in Iowa. Those close-to-home pools certainly comprise the bulk of NIACC's roster, but thanks to Fish and a bevy of trips to Las Vegas, Hergert has access to an under-the-radar goldmine.
"When Steve calls me about a kid, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I gotta get on this kid,’ because I trust him," Hergert said. "In our profession, you can’t be everywhere at once. You gotta have people that you trust, and Steve’s been a great resource for me."