Sept. 14, 2011
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- An upcoming visit to New York City provides a lot of opportunities for the University of Iowa volleyball program. Players and coaches can view the sites, experience the culture, develop team chemistry and knock out the first extended road trip of the season. But mostly, the Hawkeyes want to use the four-match road swing to build on its recent progress.
Iowa won a single match in the season's opening weekend. The Hawkeyes doubled that total in week two, and in week three Iowa swept the Iowa Invitational on its home court to improve to 6-3, one victory shy of matching last year's win total.
"We've gotten better each week," said head coach Sharon Dingman. "We went from 1-2, to 2-1, to 3-0 in our first three weekends, and now we have the opportunity to grab four wins this weekend. It's going to be a challenge, but our schedule is always a challenge."
The Hawkeyes will play two games both Friday and Saturday. Iowa faces St. Francis (N.Y.) and tournament host Columbia Friday before closing the Columbia Invitational with back-to-back matches against Binghamton and St. John's Saturday.
"All four are big matches," said Dingman. "Every team gets fired up to play schools from the Big Ten. It's often their marquee match of the season, so we have to be prepared. Columbia has already played against Big Ten competition this season, so they know what to expect."
The Hawkeyes expect to continue to show the progress that has led to five wins in their last six matches. Iowa opened the season hitting .101 in three matches at the Hawkeye Challenge. Three weeks later, Iowa attacked at a .305 clip to sweep three matches at the Iowa Invitational. The Hawkeyes' .318 attack percentage against Chicago State was the team's highest percentage since hitting .356 in a win over No. 18 Michigan State in 2009.
The balance throughout the lineup has also been a welcomed site. Iowa had four players record double-digit kills in the five-set win over Oakland. Freshman Alex Lovell slammed a career-high 21 kills, and senior Tiffany Nilges added a career-best 16 from the right-side, a position she transitioned into during last week's practice.
"The coaches just moved me to the right side last week," said Nilges. "I felt comfortable, and they liked the results, so I'll play there until I'm told otherwise. It's my senior year. I want to be on the floor, and I want to help this team compete in the Big Ten."
The Big Ten season looms as large as ever when Iowa returns from the Columbia Invitational. The conference has seven teams ranked in the AVCA top 25, four are in the top 10 and a pair sits in the top five, including four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State. The Nittany Lions visit Iowa City Sept. 24, one night after the Hawkeyes open conference play against No. 25 Ohio State.
"This weekend is the weekend we need to pull it all together to build some momentum heading into the conference season," said Nikki Dailey, who set a career-high with 60 assists in Iowa's win over Oakland. "We also need to be challenged. We know the competition will be there and if we get rattled, we need to respond. The Big Ten is a high pressure environment, so we need to keep rolling this weekend and put together four good wins."
Iowa fans can follow the Columbia Invitational by visiting the live stats link on hawkeyesports.com, or following the Official Iowa Volleyball Blog. All start times listed are Central.