Aug. 19, 2011
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Head coach Sharon Dingman and University of Iowa volleyball program expect new results to accompany a new cast of characters, new facilities and new conference foe that pepper the Hawkeye landscape in 2011.
Dingman wanted to add athleticism and depth to this year’s team. She did just that by adding a nationally recognized recruiting class. Seven newcomers from all walks of life join 10 returning letterwinners from last season’s squad. They include a pair of homegrown athletes, a Gatorade Player of the Year, a second generation Hawkeye, a Division II transfer and a pair of middle hitters from Wisconsin and Michigan.
“We need good athletes,” said Dingman, who enters her fourth season with the program. “We need to continually up the bar of the level of athlete we’re recruiting, but at the same time, we have to have kids that know how to play the game of volleyball at a pretty high level. I really like the mix we have in this class.”
The rookies will be joined by a group of sophomores that hit the ground running a year ago. Bethany Yeager started every set at the libero position. Rachael Bedell appeared in more than 100 sets and ranked fourth on the team in total kills. Nikki Dailey split time evenly at the setter position. Dingman expects all three players to benefit from last season’s growing pains.
“That sophomore group needs to show us that they’ve grown up at least a year,” said Dingman. “I think that’s what we’re looking for, to show that you’ve matured in your game and you’re prepared to manage the game and become a better player.”
Four seniors — all players that have been Dingman dependents since the coach arrived on campus in 2008 — and a pair of juniors are expected to add leadership to a roster made up of 11 underclassmen. The elders understand the scene is new, but the goals remains the same — work hard, get better, build tradition, and advance to the postseason.
“We should start to see some benefits from having this senior group around all four years,” Dingman said. “They have a lot of playing experience. Certainly Mallory (Husz) has the most playing experience of the group. We’re expecting her to be one of our leaders as we move through the Big Ten season, and that includes helping our young players.
“How do you manage this brutal thing they call the Big Ten? We’re really hoping for big things from these seniors. They need to be role models on the court, off the court, in the weight room and everywhere in between.”
The hard work is always just that, hard — never easy. But the amenities inside the renovated Carver-Hawkeye Arena, at the very least, have made it more enjoyable. The Hawkeyes open 2011 with a new practice facility, a new locker room — complete with player lounge and video theatre — and a new playing environment. Gone are North Carver and the black curtain that split Iowa’s famed arena in two. The Hawkeyes are back to playing full-court in 2011. A ring of curtains will provide an intimate atmosphere, but the Hawkeye fans are back to sitting 360-degrees.
The Hawkeye also hope to benefit from what’s familiar in 2011, and that includes the coaching staff. Dingman, Jason Allen and Angie Boldt are back for their fourth seasons and assistant coach Ben Boldt returns for his third. The consistency in the “front office” has allowed the program to cultivate a culture of great expectations and growth. And they’ve done so in a conference that adapts the same philosophy. The Big Ten has dominated the national tournament in recent history. Penn State has won the last four NCAA titles. The last team to win a championship not named Penn State was Nebraska — Iowa’s newest conference rival. Nothing gets easier in the Big Ten, but the Hawkeyes are ready to work.
The Hawkeyes return a starting setter for the first time in three years. And as an added plus, that starter is a two-headed monster. Senior Paige Stevens played in 95 sets last year. Sophomore Nikki Dailey played in 94. This season Dingman hopes the competition brings out the best in the two players and someone grabs the starting position. Dailey showed improvement every weekend during the spring season, but it was at the expense of Stevens’ rehab. The senior underwent surgery following the 2010 season and missed all of spring competition.
“We’ve got experience,” said Dingman, “which we were completely lacking a year ago because Paige had never really set in college and Nicki was a freshman. It was a bummer for Paige that she missed all spring with her surgery, but at the same time, Nicki got every single contact, every practice and every competition. They’re both very capable. I love their experience and I think it’s going to create some really good competition in the gym.
“They’re also two pretty different setters, so it’ll be fun to see. The challenge for Paige is that she just got fully released, so there’s going to be conditioning from not playing all spring and summer, it’s going to be a race for reps for her and she has a lot of catching up to do. Nicki just continued to improve every weekend in the spring. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see that improvement this fall.”
Senior Mallory Husz is in the middle. She is Iowa’s top returner in kills and blocks, and despite right shoulder surgery in 2010, she is expected to make a big impact in 2011. In addition to her on-court performance, Husz will continue mentoring three players that make up Iowa’s most inexperienced position. Sophomore Chante’ Thompson returns following a freshman season that included limited playing time. Freshman Emily Yanny will provide a traditional 6-2 presence in the middle, and Erin Leppek brings a level of athleticism that rivals Husz.
“We really have some inexperience there because of Mal’s spring surgery,” said Dingman. “It’s going to be pretty critical how she’s able to come back from that because if we don’t have Mal, we’ve got some real inexperience in the blockers.
“We absolutely expect her to play, but the freshmen are going to have to figure it out fast, much like Bethany (Yeager) did last year. Emily is tall and long. Her offensive game is certainly ahead of her blocking. Erin is a six footer who just flies. Since I’ve been at Iowa, we haven’t had a player who jumps as well as Erin. She’s just an amazing athlete.
“Chante’ is another one that has to get healthy, because when she’s on the court and she’s determined, she can have an impact offensively and defensively.”
The position on the team with the highest growing population is the libero. Last year it was a one woman show. Bethany Yeager donned the alternate jersey every set, every match, and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in digs per set. Junior Allison Straumann had the athleticism to be a frequent defensive stopper off the bench, but the libero position unquestionably belonged to Yeager. This year, the Hawkeyes have sophomore transfer Grace Burns and freshmen Megan Makuck and Kari Mueller to challenge the incumbent.
“I’m super excited about where we are at the libero position,” said Dingman. “Bethany certainly has the lead on being our starter, but Megan Makuck and Kari Mueller coming in will certainly make Bethany better every single day. And Grace Burns is another one. She has college experience and is right behind Bethany, knocking on the door and tapping her shoulder every single day. “
Dingman also knows Straumann’s athleticism and the versatility of freshman Alli O’Deen will also help improve Iowa’s defense and passing.
“The coaching staff is very excited about Alli O’Deen. Do we envision her being a Libero? No, but she can pass and play defense with the best of them. If that’s where we think she can have the biggest impact, then it may be her and Bethany fighting it out. She and Allison Straumann will provide additional depth, so I anticipate us to be much improved in that area this year.”
It’s no surprise the Hawkeyes will take the floor with an attacker on the outside and the right side, but this year’s group of hitters will really have to challenge for the opportunity to see the floor. The Hawkeyes with the most experience include seniors Megan Eskew and Tiffany Nilges and sophomore Rachael Bedell. Eskew “drives the bus” according to Dingman. The returning team captain and fifth-year senior took more swings at the net than any other Hawkeye last season and doesn’t surrender many attacks.
“Megan is not just settling for anything,” said Dingman. “It’s really good, I feel like she’s got us going in a really good place right now. We had a very productive summer and a lot of credit goes to Megan.”
Nilges also owns an admirable amount of experience, having played in 61 matches her first three seasons, including 22 starts as a junior. Bedell showed improvement from beginning to end in 2010, recording 21 starts and 189 kills her freshman season. She also gained valuable international experience as a member of Team USA this summer.
“We’re ready for Tiff to take that next step,” said Dingman. “She’s worked hard, and she’s been a constant for us, but we’re hoping she can take her game to another level.
“Rachael continues to impress. She got to see volleyball at a completely different level. Even when she wasn’t on the court, she was able to see things you just don’t ever see. She’s going to learn from that experience and we’ll all benefit.”
The Hawkeye veterans will be pushed by freshmen Alex Lovell, the aforementioned O’Deen, and junior Lauren Friedman. Lovell was a high school All-American and Gatorade’s Michigan Volleyball Player of the Year. O’Deen is the type of attacker Dingman likes to see on the floor — smart, versatile, prepared. Friedman transitioned to the outside and appeared in 56 sets last season after playing in the middle as a freshman.
“I think Tiff, Megan and Rachael need to come in ready to go from the very beginning,” said Dingman. “They have a lot of experience and need to put it to good use or their going to find themselves on the outside looking in. Alex is ready to come in. She’s ready to come in and start and make an immediate impact. She has the skill to do that.
“O’Deen has all the tools you look for in an outside hitter at this level, and Lauren also brings a lot to the table. She’s experienced, versatile, committed and prepared. Lauren does a lot of things that we expect from Iowa volleyball players.”
The Hawkeyes open the season Aug. 26 in the opening round of the Hawkeye Challenge. They’ll play in a total of four preseason tournaments – Hawkeye Challenge, Iowa State Challenge, Iowa Invitational, Columbia Invitational – before opening the Big Ten season at home Sept. 23-24 against Ohio State and Penn State.