Staying Close To Home

By Josh Mitchell, Iowa Sports Information

Feb. 15, 2006

IOWA CITY – It’s no surprise Iowa softball Head Coach Gayle Blevins has had success since joining Iowa 18 years ago. Success stems from the core. At the heart of Iowa’s softball program are the state’s top high school players who choose to become life long Hawkeyes.

Iowans have been the staple of this program and Blevins has made this very apparent the past three years. During that time, five in-state athletes have chosen to become Hawkeyes after winning the Iowa High School Player of the Year award. Those players are Steph Ackerson (2004 Class 4-A), Sami Baugh (2001 Class 3-A), Mindy Heidgerken (2003 Class 3-A), Quinn Morelock (2005 Class 3-A), and Jenna Spratt (2003 Class 2-A).

Each of the five had a tremendous amount of success before coming to Iowa. Ackerson also won the 2004 Gatorade Player of the Year and the 2005 Jack North Award. Heidgerken had also won the 2004 Jack North Award. Four of the five players had each been part of state championship teams. The five players have also combined for eight selections the to Iowa Elite all-State team.

For players with this much high school success, opportunities at the next level are abundant. Blevins just hopes that the top players in the state will continue picking the University of Iowa because of the successful program she’s been able to establish.

“If they’re going to stay in Iowa and aspire to play at the highest level, then I would like to think they would look long and hard at Iowa,” Blevins said. “I would hope that’s something we’ve established throughout the years. I want the very best kids in Iowa wanting to attend our University.”

Just as she had hoped, most of the talented in-state players are coming to Iowa for those very reasons. Three year’s ago, after having a distinguished high school career, Heidgerken had to decide where she would play at the next level. Ultimately, she knew Iowa was the right place for her.

“I wanted to stay close to home and play for a school that was competitive,” Heidgerken said. “I didn’t want to attend a small school where I might stand out more, but wouldn’t have the same competition. I wanted to play for a team that would make me work hard.”

In Blevins’ mind, that drive to work is only half of what she desires when scouting athletes. She looks for the athlete who combines a determined work ethic with a true love for the game. And, the athlete must display that attitude day in and day out. That, she says, is what makes a player successful.

Although it is difficult for most athletes to adjust to the college game after high school, it’s especially a humbling experience for many elite athletes. After having a stellar senior high school season, Spratt came into her first season at Iowa looking to build off her success, while still understanding where her place was within the team.

“You remember what you had, but you come in fresh” said Spratt. “You build off what you have, but at the same time you realize that everyone here is good. You have to start over and challenge yourself everyday.”

By bringing in top players, Blevins is able to continue building her program with proven winners. These types of players fit her program perfectly because they display the qualities she’s looking for.

Junior Jenna Spratt was named Iowa’s class 2-A Player of the Year in 2003.

“I always like to know what makes a player tick and how passionate they are about the game,” Blevins says regarding the scouting process. “If they can’t tell me they love the game, then maybe they’re someone I don’t necessarily want in the program.”

Following high school, Baugh decided to immerse herself in softball to help prepare for the collegiate level. During her final two seasons of prep ball, she competed with the Phoenix Storm in the Amateur Softball Association.

“It was a good experience for me because the competition was so different,” Baugh says of her time in Arizona. “The people out there play 365 days a year compared to Iowa’s three months a year. It was an eye-opener about how college was going to be.”

To be part of Blevins’ program occasionally requires a certain amount of sacrifice to show you love and dedication to the game. After choosing Iowa Ackerson, a high school standout in both softball and volleyball, had to make the difficult decision on which sport to play.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” Ackerson said. “I know that my first love has always been softball. I love volleyball as well, but in the end I had to go with my heart.”

Blevins expects her players to sacrifice their own time, away from softball, in order to keep up with academics.

“I think its always challenging, but you find a way because both parts of your life are important to you,” Blevins said. “They do have to work hard, but we try to provide the resources and support.”

“If they’re going to stay in Iowa and aspire to play at the highest level, then I would like to think they would look long and hard at Iowa. I would hope that’s something we’ve established throughout the years. I want the very best kids in Iowa wanting to attend our University.”
Head Coach Gayle Blevins

For many of the players, keeping up on academics during the season can be difficult. It requires discipline. Knowing that you can’t waste free time because something needs be read or a project needs to be finished. For freshmen, the task is even greater because it is the first time they will see how much of their lives are consumed by softball.

“I’m nervous about it now, because I don’t know what to expect,” Morelock says about juggling academics with softball. “I don’t know how much time we’re going to have while traveling, but I’m going to do the best I can to keep up with my studies. I’ll get help when I need it.”

The talented players may be steadily coming into the Iowa program, but talent only goes so far. These athletes realize they must come in with a determined work ethic and strive for excellence both on and off the field. With that attitude they can leave their mark on the Iowa softball program.

“I don’t think we always have the number of blue chip players as some of our competitors, but we have kids that are right for Iowa,” said Blevins. “They’re good kids and they work really hard. I think they really represent who we are.”