March 20, 2012
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa junior Johnnie Dowling has been playing softball for more than a decade, but following the 2011 season, it was like she was asked to start over.
After completing her sophomore season for the Hawkeye softball team with a .216 batting average, 19 RBI and a team-high 11 stolen bases, the UI coaching staff discussed how she could improve her game, while also helping the team. One of the items included making a move from the right to the left side of the plate.
"I was getting ready to go home for the summer and at the (coaches) meeting before I went home coach (Marla) Looper and coach (Stacy) May-Johnson asked me if I would like to switch to the left side," said Dowling. "I thought about it for a little bit, and I understood where they were coming from, why they wanted me to do it, and how it would benefit the team. I thought it was a good idea."
The Hawkeye coaching staff "debriefs" each player at the end of each season and then meets with each one individually. When Dowling became the subject, it was clear what direction they needed her to go.
"Looking at our future in what we had and what we had graduated, we knew we needed some more firepower on the left side," said Looper. "Looking at her highs and lows offensively -- she's great when she is on the bases -- but she wasn't getting on base enough.
"We felt that if she could make the transition physically and mentally that it could help her and help our team."
After being approached with the proposition, it wasn't a tough decision for Dowling. She was ready to make the switch from the get-go.
"She was right on board," said Looper. "She didn't cringe at all, didn't even blink an eye. She was like `OK, what do I need to do to help the team? What do I need to do to get better at that?"
After going through the fundamentals with May-Johnson, the hitting coach, before moving back to Des Moines for the summer, Dowling went to work.
"I practiced every day," said Dowling. "My mom has always been somebody who could help and coach me through things, and she had no idea what slapping was, besides that it was on the left side."
"It was easy to know the steps and the fundamentals of it, but I didn't know how I was going to deal with that. Once I started practicing and got a feel for it, it was easier than I thought."
When Dowling returned to Iowa City in August, she was a different player -- even to the surprise of her teammates and coaches.
"I think half of my team didn't know I was slapping," said Dowling. "They thought I was joking around at the beginning, and once they saw that I had gotten the hang of it over the summer, they were very encouraging."
"Our staff was pleasantly surprised in what she was able to accomplish over the summer because she did have to do it on her own," said Looper. "For her to do the things she needed to understand the concept of the left side and to work on it on her own -- put in the time and hours in the summer -- and be willing to do that for a young collegiate athlete, kudos to her because it's not easy to take your summer to learn something completely new on your own."
Dowling says hitting from the left-hand side of the plate has resulted in the game changing for her.
"I see the field a lot differently," she said. "Before, on the right side, I thought about hitting the ball. Now, on the left side, there are so many different elements to being a slapper -- you can bunt, soft slap, hard slap, bounce slap -- there are so many things that go into it. It makes me see the field better and where I can put the ball in the holes."
Dowling began her new role as a slapper at the bottom of the lineup when the Hawkeyes opened the season at the Getterman Classic in Waco, Texas, finishing with one hit in 10 at-bats.
"The first weekend I struggled," said Dowling. "I was being very aggressive at the plate, and I was wondering why all the practice wasn't working. Coach May-Johnson told me, `It will come, be patient.' Just talking it out with her gave me a lot of confidence."
Dowling tallied her first multi-hit game as a slapper against Illinois State on Feb. 17 in Tempe, Ariz. Since then, she has a total of five multi-hit games, including a three-hit, two run performance in the victory over LIU Brooklyn. The three hits tied a career high.
"The name of the game is confidence," said Looper. "In our sport, when you gain a little bit of confidence, it keeps breeding, growing and getting a little bigger. We knew we needed to keep her in the bottom of the lineup to get her some chances.
"Once she started to get some success, she started getting more confident, and that's when we were able to put her at the top of the lineup and have her lead off. When you have a table-setter like that, your chances are greater in scoring more runs and helping your defense."
Dowling is still learning the ins-and-outs of being a slapper, but Looper sees many possibilities for her revamped leadoff hitter.
"She has a little more power on that lefty, slap side," said Looper. "Eventually, she'll be able to poke balls in gaps and holes, draw the infield in and then pop it over there head, or make them think she's slapping and drop a nice, soft bunt.
"She's still trying to learn the finesse part of the left side, but when that happens, she'll be a triple threat and deadly at the plate."
The Hawkeyes host Wisconsin this weekend for a three-game series in their home and Big Ten Conference openers. Saturday's doubleheader begins at 1 p.m. (CT), while Sunday's series finale starts at 2 p.m. (CT).