Dec. 13, 2010
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Following record-setting seasons in Sharon Dingman's first two years at Iowa, a 2-18 conference mark in 2010 may seem like a step back, but in reality it is just a record. In the big picture, the Hawkeyes were able to take a big step forward by establishing a volleyball culture that values teamwork, commitment, dedication and one common goal - building a program that can compete in the NCAA tournament.
The new-look Hawkeyes, who replaced 10 letterwinners from the 2009 roster with a nationally recognized recruiting class, stormed out of training camp and raced to the championship of the Hawkeye Challenge, stockpiling three wins in three days. The tournament championship marked the first time since 2007 the Hawkeyes won their host tournament and the first time in program history Iowa started the season 3-0 in back-to-back years.
The Hawkeyes youth movement gained speed the following weekend when freshman Bethany Yeager captured MVP honors en route to Iowa's championship run at the Marcia E. Hamilton Active Ankle Challenge in St. Louis, MO. The Hawkeyes won 2-of-3 matches at the challenge to improve to 5-1, matching the second best start in program history. Only the 1978, 1988 and 2009 teams started the season with a better record (6-0).
Yeager, one of only three players to start every match, was a mainstay in a lineup often dominated by freshmen. Yeager, Rachael Bedell, Nikki Dailey and Chante' Thompson combined to start 68 matches. The freshman quartet started as a group four times, more than any other Big Ten team.
"I'm pretty excited about the freshmen," said Dingman. "I think Nikki finished the season incredibly strong. Rachael really relaxed and settled in towards the end of the season. I thought she was competing at a really high level, so I'm thrilled about that.
"Bethany just continues to get better and better and, unfortunately, you didn't get to see Chante' very much, but we see her in practice every day and her improvement has been unbelievable. She played behind our two most efficient players, so it's hard to give her court time," said Dingman.
The youth movement provided another reason to excite the Hawkeye faithful. Iowa ranked No. 28 in national attendance, averaging 1,289 fans in 14 home matches, including a near school-record 2,787 when the Hawkeyes hosted Iowa State. Fans unable to make the trip to Carver-Hawkeye Arena were able to watch Iowa volleyball from the comfort of their homes, as four Hawkeye matches were televised to a national audience via the Big Ten Network.
"Hawkeye fans are some of the best in the country," said Dingman, who has defeated a top 25 team in each of her three seasons. "They've been tremendous supporters of this program for as long as I've been here. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is a great atmosphere for collegiate volleyball and the Big Ten Network offers another opportunity for the Hawkeyes and our fans to stay connected."
Since 2006, Hawkeye fans have been able to connect with redshirt senior Becky Walters. A key piece to Iowa's rebuilding effort, Walters put together a career season in 2010, posting career highs and leading the team in kills, blocks and service aces. But despite dominating both the net and the service line - her 41 service aces set the modern day single-season record - it was her contributions off the court that impressed Iowa's head Hawkeye.
"I know in a couple years from now when we're in the NCAA tournament and we're ranked in the top 25, Becky is going to look back on that and understand the part that she played in that, even though she won't be wearing the uniform," said Dingman. "She has made a lasting impression on this team. She demonstrated how to take care of yourself and how to give yourself a chance to succeed at a really high level. If everyone takes a little bit away from what Becky did in her five years here, we're going to be really good. I think she's been an amazing example for this team."
The Hawkeyes - who return six starters and 10-of-11 letterwinners - will be older, wiser and stronger in 2011. In addition to the experienced freshman class, Iowa will return a quartet of juniors that combined for 95 starts and includes the team's leading attacker, Megan Eskew; top distributer, Paige Stevens; Mallory Husz, who ranked second on the team in kills and blocks despite missing time with a shoulder injury; and Tiffany Nilges, who started the season's final 14 matches.
"I'm ecstatic about where are freshmen are right now and I'm just as excited about everyone else we have coming back," said Dingman. "We need to work on the back-to-back consistency, and part of that is the inexperience and youth on this team. It's every single night in this conference. That's what we have to get used to. That's where we have to grow. We have to toughen up. We have to get a little bit tougher about that.
"But I like this group. I like where we are. It's exciting to look forward."