Aug. 21, 2015
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First of all we appreciate you all being here. This is great. It is symbolic of the momentum we feel in our program. There is no doubt in our mind that we continue to improve and we’re building on the momentum from last season. We have a lot of new faces in the gym and it has been a lot of fun for us to go through preseason and get to know what those new people and players can do inside of our program, but also watch them gel together. Every day we’re getting improvement and sometimes the reality of preseason is you go two steps forward, one step back. We have been doing that like any team does. But it has been a great start to the year so far. Of course the proof will be in the putting and a great start for us needs to culminate in opening match wins when we compete next Saturday at Northern Illinois. We have a lot of work left to do and we know that the distraction and focus it is going to take for them to start classes on Monday really shifts the mentality of the team so we have to prepare for that, too.
We have eight new players on our roster for this fall so that is really more than half of our 15. They have some things to figure out — where do I get on the Cambus? How do I get a cheeseburger at lunch or whatever it is? What they have figured out already is how to be great teammates, they have figured out how to work hard in the gym and practice to be successful and we’re looking forward to a great season this year.
With so many new faces, what are keys to getting them to gel and be good teammates as quickly as possible?
We have a lot of new players, but we have a lot of great people, too. That law of magnetism has applied well inside our program. Great players are drawn to each other; the great recruits are drawn to the great people that are already here. As a result we have a lot of really nice, quality people inside of our program, too, so they are easy to get along with and they are easy to get to know.
We’re doing all kinds of team building things and spending a lot of time hanging out together and trying to open those doors to get to know who everyone is and what makes them tick. We’re in a small bubble during preseason because we’re together almost 24-7 and it has been a good experience so far and a lot of eye-openers for me as a coach. We go through the recruiting process with kids and we think we know them and we try hard to get to know them, but there is nothing quite like sweating together, getting after it together, getting frustrated together, feeling successful together, eating meals, I think we eat 28 times a day, so when you do that, that’s really when you get to know people.
Your players talked about a culture change. Is that over? Are you through that?
The process of culture change never stops. As you bring new people in they have to learn and figure out “Who are we?” “What do we do?” “How do we do it?” That’s part of the culture and we’re still working on our team identity. The team identity will get born in how we play in terms of system and structure, but it also gets born in who we are when we play and compete. We have tons of work left to do and really when you think about eight new players walking in the door, they need to learn what it is, too. When we get it right it will be the players teaching each other what the culture is. Right now as a coaching staff, they are doing a part of it and we’re doing part of it. When we get it right, the players will drive the culture and we sit back and kind of watch and guide it a little bit, but we’re not driving it all of the time. We have stepped in the right direction for sure, but we still have a long way to go.
What is the biggest difference for you from last year to this year?
Biggest difference for me as a coach right now — the quality of talent is really good. They are buying in and clicking well. Comfortability, certainly understanding and knowing what the Big Ten is and getting a better feel for what that competition level is night in and night out because it is grueling. It is really a brutal marathon that feels like it is uphill the whole way.
The exciting thing for me that is so different is I can feel internally, in our department, just like in our program. I can feel the belief and the momentum shift, but I can also feel it externally and that’s a cool thing to get excited about. Our home opener this year is Iowa State, so what Hawkeye fan doesn’t want to come and cheer us on at Carver on Sept. 11? That’s a great opportunity for us to get out there, get after it and show people what we’re all about.
All of those changes as we go, we take them in stride and I find myself as a coach, I keep looking at the next, the next, the next thing and part of the next thing for us is the culture and the team, but the other part of the next thing for us is how do we get more Hawkeye fans to embrace what we are all about and what we are doing? When we win we know they will show up, but we need their support to come in and help us win.
Is the success at Northern Iowa and Iowa State motivation for you and for this program?
This is the Hawkeye State, so we need to be the best program in the state. Period. I know that every sport here feels like that. When Division I athletes inside our borders have an opportunity to play on scholarship, this should be where they dream and desire to come. We have to work to establish and achieve that. We have to earn that right with them and inside of our volleyball community just like every other sport here has to do that. We feel like we are making great strides for that.
I gave a lecture to a recruit in my office the other day. I said “we are done letting top recruits leave our state. We are closing the borders and you are going to come here.” She kind of laughed and her parents laughed and they thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t kidding. We are going to keep those best kids here.
With the eight newcomers and the four transfers, who are you looking to plug in and make a big impact right away?
All four transfers have found playing time so far in our starting lineup, but the starting lineup keeps shifting. That’s the beauty of preseason. We get to test and tinker with a lot of different things to figure out not only who individually will perform, but where the chemistry is at with those six that are standing on the court at any given time.
Loxley Keala is doing a great job as our starting setter right now, and she will clearly be the starter. She’s been here since the spring semester, so she has a great leap forward. We have a lot of other new players that are in the fold right now. I really like what Annika Olsen is doing at libero right now. She is a former Georgia Tech player that transferred here and has a couple years left of eligibility.
A lot of other returning players, (Lauren) Brobst and (Jess) Janota, are super terminal right now. They are putting the ball away, and that is what we need. I always ask them, `Who’s my killer?’, “Who’s killing the ball?’ A killer has a mentality; they have an identity in the gym at any given moment. Those are two players, Gunderson and Brobst, who are really kind of dialing it up right now and becoming the killer in the gym. But so is Ashley Mariani, so is Reagan Davey, so is Taylr McNeil. We have all of these hitters and have more weapons than we’ve had in the past. As a result, we ought to be able to take down some pretty big game out there.
You mentioned the team bonding. Can you talk about your “minute” games? Who came up with that?
Our staff does a great job of brainstorming for ideas about different ways to do team building. We did all kinds of “Minute To Win It” rip offs during the course of preseason.
We have our team broken up into three small teams. They came up with a team name, they have a team flag, and when they win challenges they get to stake their flag in the gym every day. Those kinds of things are really fun. Again, it takes us out of something that is normal and it lets people do things that are kind of abnormal while still competing against each other.
Our staff did a great job of coming up with different ideas. We went up to the Maquoketa Caves and crawled around the other day. That was really interesting to watch as people had to kind of overcome a lot of fears, me included. No one likes to crawl into a dark space and feel like there are bats flying around your head.
Anything that we are going to do is about having to respond to being out of our comfort zone. Our gals are super outgoing. They are really creative and funny and they are all really weird. Those things come out when you start doing team building stuff.
So were you able to stick it?
I didn’t do the peanut butter bounce. I should have, but I just recorded it. It was pretty cool.
With the strength of the Big Ten Conference, including your program which seems to be continuing to get stronger and stronger, can you just talk about the conference and how it seems to be getting better every year?
Yeah the Big Ten is so deep right now. We recognize that you can be a top 25 team and be eighth or ninth in the league. I mean, that’s what keeps happening year after year. Most years there will be about 10 teams during the course of the season that’ll be ranked in the top 25 and that’s no surprise to us.
We looked at the preseason poll and we’re picked 11th out of 14 teams. I don’t like that. My team doesn’t like that. But we don’t mind being the underdog and having to come after people. The reality is the teams that are one and two spots ahead of us are also NCAA Tournament quality teams. So we know last year we were maybe two matches away from being in that boat. This year we’ve set up a really great nonconference schedule and obviously we have a great schedule in conference that’ll allow us to build RPI.
Our preseason strength of schedule is ranked 15th in the country. That’s something this program maybe hasn’t faced or set up before, but we’re gonna do it and we’re gonna get out there and push ourselves to be challenged all year long not just when we get into conference play and get kicked around the court a little bit. It’s time we start doing some kicking. So you know the Big Ten will be the Big Ten. It’ll be there waiting for us and it’s always gonna be quality volleyball every single night and it’s gonna take absolute focus and effort from a team stand point for us to be successful in the league again.