Aug. 9, 2010
IOWA CITY, IA - The players have changed and the results have improved, yet one thing ironically remains the same heading into the third year of the Sharon Dingman era, consistency. Iowa volleyball's head coach preached it the moment she arrived on campus in 2008. She stressed it again throughout year two. And in 2010, she says the players have begun to understand the broad meaning of her message.
In order for Dingman's Hawkeyes to navigate north through the Big Ten standings, the players had to consistently improve in the offseason. They had to consistently grow together off the court. And they must consistently train at their highest level every day in the gym. Because when you compete in the nation's top volleyball conference, you enter the season knowing everyone is getting better and the margin of error is - consistently - slim to none.
"We've had consistent training going into our third year and the players now know what the expectations are," said Dingman. "They have a very clear understanding of what the coaches expect. They should understand what is expected of each other and it should be very clear what their role is on this team. All of these things are going to be very instrumental for us moving forward. For us to make the next big move, we have to play at a higher level every single day. We have to train and compete at a higher level."
Iowa's next big move would indeed be a big one. The Hawkeyes are aiming to end a 15-year NCAA postseason drought, and recent history indicates they're knocking on the door. In Dingman's first two seasons, Iowa enjoyed its most successful two-year stretch nine seasons. The Hawkeyes collected five conference wins in 2009, which was enough for the sixth and final Big Ten team to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships - an indication of the quality of competition that resides in the Big Ten Conference.
"We need to train every day with the NCAA tournament on our minds. We've talked with the players about it and that's how they need to approach every day. We want to establish this program as a consistent member of the NCAA field."
Head Coach Sharon Dingman
The support surrounding the program also continues to grow with each program victory. The Hawkeyes set record attendance figures in both 2008 and 2009, and in 2011 the team will move into a $43 million renovated facility that includes a practice gymnasium, expanded locker rooms and an 11,000 square foot strength training room. All of which bodes well for the future, but even more importantly, according to Dingman, is the approach the players take today if they want to reach their postseason potential.
"We need to train every day with the NCAA tournament on our minds. We've talked with the players about it and that's how they need to approach every day. We want to establish this program as a consistent member of the NCAA field. We want this team to be the first of many to consistently appear in the NCAA tournament. We want to be a consistent player in the Big Ten, and I think we are close. This program has reached the point where we help the Big Ten be the best conference in the country."
For the program to turn its NCAA goals into a postseason reality, Dingman is counting on each player to continue to buy into the team attitude and family atmosphere that began to emerge throughout the course of the offseason.
"We dedicated ourselves to being more of a team in every aspect of the word and it's truly unbelievable to see the transformation that has happened because we really committed to that philosophy this spring. That alone is going to help us. I don't know if it will win some matches, but it will help us score some points and keep us in matches. That's one thing that the group here this summer has continued to embrace and enjoy. They're more comfortable with each other and as a result they're more comfortable holding each other to a higher expectation. They can demand more of each other because we have a comfort level that we haven't had the last couple years."
This season's expectations will be driven by a group of 10 returning letterwinners and a recruiting class that received national recognition.
Fifth-year senior Becky Walters anchors the Hawkeye roster from her middle blocker position. One-hundred percent healthy for the first time in her collegiate career, Walters returns to the Iowa lineup after averaging a team-high 0.95 blocks per set in 2009. She enters her final season with a .224 all-time attack percentage, the 15th highest percentage in program history.
"This spring was the first time I've seen Becky healthy. She was dominating in every aspect. She's hitting the ball harder. She's more physical. She's really bought into listening to Ben's (Boldt) blocking techniques and as a result her blocking has improved drastically. Becky is going to be critical to our success."
Walters will be accompanied by returning starter Mallory Husz. A junior middle blocker, Husz appeared in 26 sets her sophomore season and improved each week, earning the starting nod for the final nine regular season contests. A natural leader, Husz has embraced her role as an upperclassman and has been instrumental in the Hawkeyes' improvement in every facet of the "team" concept.
"Mallory gives us the leadership this program desperately needs in every aspect, on and off the court. Mallory has embraced being a leader in the group and promoting her vision for this team. What Mallory brings to the court is she's really fast. She needs to beat people with her speed because she's undersized. She's an undersized player compared to most Big Ten middles, but she's able to use her speed to beat people."
Freshman Chante' Thompson is almost a hybrid of Iowa's returning middle blockers. She brings size and athleticism to the position and will provide depth to a very talented spot in the Hawkeye lineup.
"Chante brings us size. She's a legit 6'4" athlete. She's long and she gets in there and she mixes it up. If we can get her training consistently I think she's going to have a very good freshman year. "
A former middle blocker turned right-side hitter, sophomore Lauren Friedman put together a great spring to challenge returning starter Aimee Huffman in Iowa's rotation. Huffman, who was enjoying a phenomenal junior campaign before she was derailed by injury and missed the season's final six games, is expected to return to the Iowa lineup with a team-best 2.62 kills per set.
"Lauren had a great spring season and I think the competition on the right side is really going to be good. Lauren was our starting right-side player this spring because Aimee was rehabbing from injury, and because Lauren played so well, it's almost like Aimee has to work hard to get that position back. There is going to be great competition at the position that will benefit our team."
Another Hawkeye returning from injury is redshirt junior Megan Eskew. After being sidelined in 2009 due to a knee ailment, Eskew has hit the gym with enthusiasm and a restructured bounce in her step.
"It's amazing to have Megan back in the gym. She brings intangibles that nobody else on our team has when it comes to being a competitor. She truly loves to play every day and I think her absence was really good for her and, thus, it's going to be really good for the team. It is so much fun having her back in the gym every day."
Pushing Eskew for playing time at the outside hitter position is junior Tiffany Nilges. Nilges began 2009 in a reserve role, but averaged over two kills per set while starting the season's final eight matches.
"Tiffany is critical to our team. She has the most experience among our returning players. She made big strides this spring and I think she's really embracing that role of being a go-to player. She's very good in the back row so we're excited about what she brings defensively to the team. Tiff is going to have to play at a high level every day for us to succeed."
Sophomore Allison Straumann and newcomer Rachael Bedell will also compete for swings at the outside hitter position. Straumann saw playing time in the front row this spring after mostly spelling the Hawkeyes on defense a year ago.
"We can use Alli in a lot of different areas. She is going to be a great role player that will be vital to any team's success. If we need someone to go in and serve, it's going to be Alli. If Alli doesn't start and someone needs a breather, we can count on Alli. She is so steady and that's where we saw her improve this spring. She became a much steadier competitor."
Bedell, one of three incoming freshmen from the Texas hotbed, will bring a new dynamic to the position. A middle blocker through most of her prep career, Bedell has the size and youthful enthusiasm to become a reliable outside threat.
"Rachel brings us size to the outside. The second part of her club season this past year was the first time she was really able to focus on just being an outside hitter. She's going to have a lot to learn, but we're going to accelerate her learning curve because she can help us on the floor. She brings size and a physical style to that position."
After appearing in 10 contests in 2009 and leading the Iowa offense throughout the spring, junior Paige Stevens enters 2010 as Iowa's first-team setter.
"Paige delivers a great ball and I think the hitters enjoy hitting off of Paige. She's a great student of the game. She likes to watch film and she likes to study scouting reports. She really enjoys all that so I'm really excited to see her grasp this starting opportunity."
Freshman setter Nikki Dailey will also get a shot at contributing to the Hawkeyes' effort on the court. A two-time all-state performer in Franklin, WI, Dailey will run the Iowa offense from the setter spot, but could also earn some playing time in the back court.
"Nikki is athletic and she's a pretty tough competitor. She's a freshman setter, which is the equivalent of being a freshman quarterback, so it's a really tough position to come into with high expectations. But that's what we need from Nikki. Whether Nikki is pushing Paige or whether Nikki is running our scrimmage side, she needs to play at a pretty high level fairly quickly. She is very athletic and she is going to find her way to the floor, whether it's setting or playing defense."
Iowa's defensive specialist position isn't loaded in quantity, but it's rich with quality. Senior Signe Mueller opened the 2009 season as the starting libero before spending much of the campaign rotating in as a defensive specialist. Sophomore Jordanne LeTourneau saw her playing time increase as the season progressed a year ago and freshman Bethany Yeager brings a competitive attitude that could compete for any spot on the floor, despite her 5-7 frame.
"The defensive specialists we have are pretty solid. Experience should give Signe the edge because she understands the level of play we expect more than anyone. That being said, I'm super excited about both Sig and Bethany. They can both help our team reach another level. Bethany is fiercely competitive. As much as any player we have, she loves to train. She trains to get better every single day. She's going to bring some fire to the team, that's for sure.
"Jordanne may be the best server on our team. If we're in a situation where we can win a set or win that match with one good serve, we could call Jordanne's number."
Dingman's third season is primed for potential. The returning players have bought into the team philosophy, the incoming freshmen are loaded with talent, and the returning staff embodies the consistency the Head Hawkeye continually stresses. Assistant Coach Jason Allen and Director of Operations Angie Boldt have been on Dingman's sideline since the coach arrived in 2008 and Assistant Coach Ben Boldt and Volunteer Assistant Curt Sivertsen return for their second season on the bench.
"Retaining my staff is a huge benefit. Our staff knows each other. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and I think we work incredibly well together. Because of our continuity, the team understands us much better than they ever have before. That's going to benefit us tremendously."