Jan. 31, 2014
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa —When the University of Iowa softball team opens its season next weekend in Columbia, S.C., the Hawkeyes will be do more than acclimate to 60-degree playing conditions.
They will also be testing the road, a place they want to be in mid-May when NCAA Regionals begin.
Marla Looper begins her fourth season as head coach at the UI. After posting back-to-back 27-win seasons, the Hawkeyes finished 30-24 in 2013, but were left behind when postseason participants were announced.
“I remember sitting in the women’s basketball locker room watching the selection show and I don’t want to have that same experience (of not being chosen) again,” junior shortstop Megan Blank said Friday at the team’s media day in the Indoor Football Practice Facility. “That’s the worst feeling in the world, sitting there knowing that you deserve to be up there and that you fell short.”
Iowa begins the season Feb. 7-9, playing four games at the Carolina Classic. Looper said the Hawkeyes have completed three quality weeks of practice, now it’s time to hit the grass running.
“I want to see aggressive, assertive and a lot of energy hitting the field,” Looper said. “We like to set the tempo of the game.”
“I remember sitting in the women’s basketball locker room watching the selection show and I don’t want to have that same experience (of not being chosen) again. That’s the worst feeling in the world, sitting there knowing that you deserve to be up there and that you fell short.”
UI junior shortstop
The Hawkeyes return 11 letterwinners, six starters, and three pitchers from a year ago. Blank has appeared on the top 50 Watch List for the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year; she was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as a sophomore.
“Last year was kind of unreal. I got in a zone,” said Blank, who batted .437 with 11 home runs and 59 RBI. “I couldn’t do what I did without the coaches and my teammates. The team chemistry and camaraderie we have is great and that influences how everyone plays.”
Thanks to a 30-win season and the return of players like Blank, softball fans are taking note of the Hawkeyes, who last made the postseason in 2009.
“It is huge for the program,” Looper said. “It’s great for Megan because she deserves some of that recognition, and it’s great for the program in the sense that people know Iowa again.”
Senior Kayla Massey is back at pitcher after winning 17 times last season. She also batted .320 with nine home runs and 40 RBI.
“Having any returner in the circle is vital,” Looper said. “Kayla wants to start off strong and finish stronger than any time since she has been here. That’s huge that she will anchor us; we have two other horses in the circle and it will be a fun battle to see which one rises to the top.”
The nonconference schedule includes 10 games against teams in the preseason top 25: Nebraska and Texas (three times each), Missouri (twice) and Baylor and Alabama-Birmingham (once each). Iowa defeated six ranked teams a year ago.
“We’re going to be tested, so it’s exciting for sure,” said senior Brianna Luna. “It will make us more comfortable being able to face the big teams in the Big Ten.”
The Hawkeyes look to boost their performance against league foes. Last year they were 8-15 in Big Ten play and Iowa’s batting average (.267) was 17 points lower than its overall average, its fielding percentage (.948) was nine points lower, and its ERA (4.55) was 1.13 points higher.
But before the conference opener March 21, Iowa plays 20 nonconference tuneups.
“We’re taking it one day at a time and focusing on the now, not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Blank said. “We emphasize one day at a time, one pitch at a time.”