Battling with the Best

Aug. 17, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As far as NCAA volleyball goes, the Big Ten is king. And it looks as though the kingdom is just getting stronger.

The conference was represented by seven teams in the AVCA Coaches Top 25 Poll released this week, including No. 1 Penn State, who for the fourth straight year sits atop the poll following a national championship. The last team not named Penn State to win a NCAA volleyball title? Big Ten rookie Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won the 2006 championship and enter 2011 ranked No. 5.

“I think the preseason poll is recognition of what’s been done in the past,” said Iowa head coach Sharon Dingman. “And if you look at the recent past, you’d have to say the Big Ten is very deserving of the preseason hype.”

Six Big Ten teams, not including Nebraska, were ranked in the final top 25 poll last season, more than any other conference. The Cornhuskers finished seventh in the final 2010 AVCA poll following their 27th straight trip the Sweet 16. A 28th trip could help the Big Ten break its own record of six teams in the round of 16. The Big Ten accomplished the feat last year, joining the 1982 Pac-10 as the only conferences to send six teams to the regional semifinal round.

“The quality of play in the Big Ten is one of the many reasons to come to Iowa,” said sophomore Libero Bethany Yeager, who ranked fourth in the conference in digs per set during her freshman season. “It’s tough and it’s a grind, but it’s so much fun.

“It’s so worth it to be able to go out there and play the best teams in the nation every weekend. Every match is a battle. That’s why you have to get better every day and that’s why we’re busting our butt right now in training camp.”

Dingman says it’s no surprise to see seven conference foes in the preseason top 25, and she won’t be surprised to see a couple more make a push when the season gets underway.

“There’s a great opportunity this year for a lot of teams to make a run towards the top of the Big Ten,” Dingman said, “because the conference is so strong, top to bottom.

“Last year the Big Ten was as strong as it’s been for a while because there were a lot of older players. There were quality seniors on a lot of teams. This year I think we’ll see a lot of younger players step forward. I think the spots near the top of the conference are there for the taking. A lot of teams will by vying for those positions, including us.”

The Hawkeyes combined for 11 conference wins from 2008-09, the most successful two-year stretch in nine years, but won just two games last season with a young and inexperienced roster. They’ll start 2011 with 10 returning letterwinners, a nationally-recognized recruiting class and the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament while making a run up the Big Ten ladder.

“I think we’ll see some of the usual suspects at the top of the conference,” said Dingman. “But this is a great year for some of us to make some moves. We have a lot of drive and we want to be in the discussion when people talk about the Big Ten Conference.”

Iowa opens the season August 26 and 27 when Central Michigan, St. Louis and Marquette visit Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the Hawkeye Challenge.