Hawkeyes Close the Curtain on Second Act

Dec. 14, 2009

IOWA CITY, IA – The sequel is rarely as good as the original, but the second year of the Sharon Dingman era may be one of the exceptions. Iowa’s head volleyball coach enjoyed a great deal of relative success in 2008, her first as head Hawkeye, so expectations were high as she entered her encore season in 2009. And though the second act wasn’t as successful as The Godfather Part II, it was a long way from the disastrous Caddyshack II, and it has Iowa fans excited for the third installment.

The 2009 season experienced record attendance, the best start in program history and a handful of individual milestones. The Hawkeyes captured five Big Ten wins to raise their two-year conference total to 11, the highest two-year stretch since 2000-01. In fact, prior to Dingman’s arrival in 2008, the volleyball program amassed a combined 14 conference victories in the previous six seasons – the most dismal six-year stretch in program history. With that kind of relative success, it’s fair to say that Dingman’s two seasons have breathed life into a near lifeless program.

“I think it goes back to how we’re measuring success in our program,” said Dingman. “Different people measure success differently. Some people can’t understand how I can say we had a successful season when we were 5-15 (Big Ten) and 13-19 overall. Well, we did have a lot of successes. The way we want to develop this program is a measure of relative successes. We can’t think the only way we’re going to measure success is if we finish fourth in the Big Ten. We have to measure success against the history we’re working with and against.”

The history Iowa faced heading into 2009 was the reality that four, four-year starters had graduated and the second layer of the program’s foundation would be in the hands of an inexperienced lineup that suddenly faced the expectation to win. Behind two seniors and four new starters, the Hawkeyes served up 2009 by attacking that expectation head on. Dingman’s squad became just the third team in program history to start the season 6-0, capturing two preseason tournament championships, the Loyola Invitational and the Green Bay Classic.

Aimee Huffman and Mallory Husz each set career highs in kills in 2009.

“That’s something we can look back on as a really cool milestone that this team achieved for this program,” said Dingman. “We built the preseason schedule in such a way that we wanted to be challenged. We wanted to put ourselves in a position where we felt we could be successful, but we didn’t want that success to come easily, because no success is easy in the Big Ten.”

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, their new core of players meshed immediately en route to matching the best start in program history. Returning starter Aimee Huffman and first-year starter Mara Hilgenberg captured Tournament MVP honors at the respective tournaments, while senior Christina Meister, who earned the vacated libero position in preseason training camp, captured Big Ten Player of the Week laurels for her performance at the Green Bay Classic. Meister picked up 36 digs in Iowa’s win over Central Michigan at the Classic, the second highest single-match dig total in program history.

“I think Christina is such a nice athlete,” said Dingman, “and her athleticism allowed her to flourish at the libero position. She is an opportunistic player and the opportunity was there for somebody to step in and seize that role.”

Meister’s position was never handed to her. Iowa had several players competing in the preseason for the vacated starting position, but Meister’s athleticism allowed her to thrive and earn the right to compete alongside fellow senior and long-time starter Megan Schipper. As the program was breaking old records and setting new standards for the new era of Iowa volleyball, including becoming the only team in school history to win its first seven road contests, Schipper was climbing the proverbial ladder in the Hawkeye history books. Iowa’s co-captain finished her career as one of only nine players to rank among the top 20 in career kills, blocks and service aces. In Iowa’s Big Ten opening win at Wisconsin, a game nationally televised on the Big Ten Network, she became the 16th player in program history to reach the 1,000-kill plateau.

Senior Christina Meister became one of only four Hawkeyes since 1990 to average four digs per set.

“Everybody knew early on that Schipper was going to be our go to player,” said Dingman. “She was our returning leader in every statistical category. She positioned herself to be a leader and that came with a lot of expectations and pressure. I think she kind of struggled her way through the early part of the season, but in the end I think Schip provided everything we needed from her.”

Despite facing double teams throughout the season, Schipper continued to find ways to push the Hawkeye program into the win column. Iowa’s co-captain led the team in kills and service aces and finished second in digs.

“Schip never wavered because she is such a great competitor,” said Dingman. “Her numbers may have been a little bit lower than she would have liked, but in the end she should feel very good about her senior season.”

The Hawkeyes earned the right to feel good about 2009. On October 2, Iowa topped Penn State 26-24 in the third set to snap the defending champion’s regular season record of 141-consecutive set victories.

“There are a lot of successful teams out there that haven’t beaten Penn State in a set,” said Dingman. “I find it interesting when coaches say there is no moral victory. I do think there are moral victories, because that to me is a step. It’s positive PR for our program and it’s rewarding for our players. It reinforces the fact that they have to play every single point.”

The Hawkeyes’ efforts were rewarded at home with record attendance. Iowa averaged over 1,300 fans in 2009, the 30th best total in the country and nearly 200 more than last year’s record-breaking attendance. Since Dingman’s arrival in 2008, the Hawkeyes have posted four of the top five attendance figures in the program’s 33-year history, including an all-time record of 2,802 Nov. 11, 2009.

Head Coach Sharon Dingman and co-captain Mara Hilgenberg will return in 2010 with seven seniors and 14 letterwinners.

“I think it goes back to people appreciating how our team plays volleyball,” said Dingman. “Our team plays hard and our fans appreciate the effort. It doesn’t take much to look at our team and see we were undersized in this conference, but the fact that we can win five matches just means we play harder. It’s very nice to have a fan base and be a part of an athletic department that values hard work.”

The Hawkeyes will lean on experience and hard work in 2010. Iowa returns seven seniors and 14 letterwinners to compliment a celebrated 2010 recruiting class.

“What’s important to next year’s senior class is they have to decide what kind of legacy they want to leave on this program,” said Dingman. “We have four freshmen coming in that can make an immediate impact, but only if they follow the example set by our upperclassmen. We watched the NCAA draw together as a team this season because that is where we want to be sitting every year. They’ve never been in that position before, but this senior class wants to be in that position next year. I know they’re pretty fired up.”

Perhaps equally important is the continuity of the Iowa coaching staff. The entire staff is expected to join Dingman on the bench 2010, including assistant coaches Jason Allen and Ben Boldt and director of operations Angie Boldt.

“I am so blessed to come to work every day and work with those three,” said Dingman. “They’re all very diligent and incredibly professional about how they go about every single day. They just have a tremendous passion for what they do and they have a tremendous passion for what we want the Hawkeye volleyball program to look like next year and 10 years from now. I can’t even begin to express my appreciation for our entire support staff of people. They are determined to lead Iowa to the NCAA tournament and I know we can do it.”