Sept. 20, 2011
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa head volleyball coach Sharon Dingman knows a two-match sweep this weekend won’t count as five wins, but it sure would feel like it with Ohio State and Penn State coming to town.
The Hawkeyes have increased their weekend win total every week of the preseason. They opened the season with one win at the Hawkeye Challenge. They doubled that total the following week at the Iowa State Challenge. One week later, the Hawkeyes swept three matches at the Iowa Invitational, and, almost as planned, week four saw Iowa win four matches en route to the tournament title at the Columbia Invitational.
It’s like the Hawkeyes are the cream of the stock market, gaining exponential value with every passing week. But all good things come to end, and Iowa’s unusual pattern is no exception. The Hawkeyes will not win five matches this weekend, but they’d be thrilled with two.
“Starting the Big Ten 2-0 is a tall order,” said Dingman. “Especially with the two teams we have coming in. I like the way we’re playing right now. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, but our players have been around this block before. They understand the Big Ten is a beast.”
If the Hawkeyes find success this weekend, they’ll need contributions from Tiffany Nilges and Chante’ Thompson. Dingman said before the season it takes experienced players to win in the Big Ten, but until recently, the Hawkeyes looked like a young team with only a handful of veterans.
Nilges, a senior from Tripoli, Iowa, was fighting for court time during Iowa’s first two preseason tournaments. She then made a transition to the right side prior to week three, and has been in the starting lineup ever since. She’s now one of three seniors in the starting lineup (Megan Eskew and Mallory Husz are the other two) and, coincidently, the Hawkeyes are winners of seven straight — their longest winning streak in five years.
“Tiffany has bought into becoming a very good right side player,” said Dingman. “I think she had a mental block about it. Since she embraced it she has really taken off and this team is better for it.”
Nilges earned MVP honors at the Iowa Invitational — the week she changed positions — and averaged 2.7 kills per set at the Columbia Invitational, the second highest total among Hawkeyes (Eskew, 3.5)
Thompson, a sophomore from Hurst, Texas, didn’t start the first two matches of the Columbia Invitational, but she made her first two starts of the season in the final two matches and played well enough to earn all-tournament honors.
“It’s great to see Chante’ have this kind of weekend because we need experience,” said Dingman. “The thought of not having to start four freshmen feels good right now. But at the same time, Emily (Yanny) and Erin (Leppek) can still play, so Chante’ has to sustain playing at the level she played this weekend.”
The Hawkeyes open conference play Friday at 7 p.m. against nationally-ranked Ohio State. Four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State visits Iowa City Saturday. Dingman hopes the Hawkeyes’ recent run of success translates into Big Ten competition.
“We want to play well, and we want to compete at the highest level we can,” said Dingman. “If we keep improving like we’ve improved over the last few weeks, I feel pretty good about going into the conference season.”