Aug. 22, 2011
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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.
By MICHELE DANNO
IOWA CITY, Iowa — With half of its senior class rehabbing serious surgeries, the 2011 University of Iowa volleyball team has turned to sophomores for leadership both on and off the court.
“The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores,” fourth-year UI head coach Sharon Dingman said. “This class is playing that out perfectly.”
And experience has proven to be one of the most critical — yet lacking — factors for the Hawkeyes, who finds themselves in arguably the toughest conference in the country. Entering the season as the only Big Ten school not to receive votes in the preseason polls, the Hawkeyes must prove themselves against powerhouse rivals such as Penn State, Michigan State, and now Nebraska, whose rosters are stacked with some of the most talented and experienced players in the nation.
“If there’s one thing I learned last year, it’s you have to have some older players in the Big Ten to win,” Dingman said. “That was pretty evident last year of the teams that had tremendous success — they had a lot of older players on the floor. It takes that experience of playing at that level every single day. We’re still young, but we’re not going to have to have three freshmen on the floor at one time this year. They could be sophomores, but they at least have one year under their belt.”
Last year, the now-sophomore class was heavily relied upon during its rookie season, filling critical positions such as starting libero and outside hitter. Outside hitter Rachael Bedell started nearly every match as a freshman in 2010, along with fellow sophomore libero Bethany Yeager, who was one of three Hawkeyes to start every match. This summer, both Hawkeyes had “tremendous success” representing the United States national team in Europe, which Dingman said built their confidence and exposed them to a different kind of volleyball.
“If there’s one thing I learned last year, it’s you have to have some older players in the Big Ten to win. That was pretty evident last year of the teams that had tremendous success — they had a lot of older players on the floor. It takes that experience of playing at that level every single day. We’re still young, but we’re not going to have to have three freshmen on the floor at one time this year. They could be sophomores, but they at least have one year under their belt.”
UI head volleyball coach
Adding to her offseason chores, Dingman challenged Yeager to become a more vocal leader, and she said the sophomore now falls just behind fifth-year senior Megan Eskew as the hardest-working Hawkeye.
With senior setter Paige Stevens and middle blocker Mallory Husz rehabbing injuries, those two crucial starting positions have been entrusted to sophomores Nikki Daily and Chante´ Thompson, neither of whom saw consistent starting time a year ago.
This year, however, those Hawkeyes will be called upon to possibly start as early as Friday at the season-opener in revitalized Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Dailey said her work over the spring and summer (she never missed on 6 a.m. session) made her more comfortable with her hitters, and she is confident she will be able to lead the squad with either a 6-2 or 5-1 offense.
“I want to play like a senior this year,” Dailey said. “I’m not a freshman anymore and I can’t be scared to tell people what to do.”
So don’t let her small, smiley, blonde appearance fool you — Dailey’s aggression and self-assurance are apparent in the way she talks and carries herself. Not to be intimidated by her competition, Daily said she thinks her youthfulness will actually work as a benefit this season.
“Paige has more experience under her belt, but I bring a different aspect to the setter position,” Dailey said. “Other teams aren’t used to seeing me play, but they already know what Paige is about. For me, they have to do more scouting because they don’t know what’s coming at them.”
Outside hitter Tiffany Nilges, one of Iowa’s two healthy seniors, added that spending the offseason training with Dailey allowed her to “work out the kinks” with the young setter and build a trustworthy hitter-setter connection.
Thompson and Dailey must also maintain that essential bond, which Dailey said has developed naturally since they started at Iowa together last year. Dailey noted that she struggles more with older hitters who are used to hitting off sets from Stevens, but she and Thompson have a chemistry to lead the Hawkeyes both on and off the court.
Despite the intense pressure and high expectations burdening the 2011 sophomore Hawkeyes, Thompson characterized her classmates as energetic, hard-working, and “really, really goofy.”
Dailey said she’s proud her class has the ability to balance work and play, and it’s important for leaders to be fun and occasionally laid back. This spunky bunch will debut its new-found leadership skills at home Aug. 26 against Central Michigan at 7 p.m. (CT).