By JACK ROSSI
IOWA CITY, Iowa — With non-conference tournament season in the rear-view mirror, the University of Iowa volleyball team turns its attention to the Big Ten, arguably the toughest volleyball conference in the country.
The Hawkeyes enter conference play with an 11-2 mark, the team’s best start since 2006 (11-2). But it was no cupcake non-conference schedule as they played seven 2016 tournament teams including No.4-ranked Stanford, No.18-ranked Iowa State, and Costal Carolina.
“We certainly improved as we went through our non-conference slate,” UI head coach Bond Shymansky said. “Our program has discovered that we are better than most and that feeling of accomplishment and capability is a good foundation to move forward.”
Tournament play has given the opportunity for younger players to break the lineup where they learned to play the systems, the competitive expectation of the coaches, and how to communicate with each other. All of which are necessary tools moving forward for a group that believes it can win now.
“We have to be better than the best in order to win in the Big Ten,” Shymansky said. “We believe that we have the right group and we have the capability to do that. It is really important that everybody in our program believes that because the Big Ten is the type of conference that will rattle your cage a bit if you don’t exhibit true mental toughness.”
Along with their best start in over a decade, the Hawkeyes hold a four match winning streak. Maintaining that momentum will hold an extra challenge going on the road for the second straight weekend.
“This weekend has two kinds of challenges,” Shymansky said. “Rutgers is a sneaky team that people will sometimes overlook and then to turn around the next night and fly to State College and play No. 2 Penn State on Saturday is another challenge. Nobody overlooks them.”
As they begin the conference season, the Hawkeyes will turn to seniors like Annika Olsen, who has played in every match in her Iowa career, to help guide the team as they play against the country’s best night in and night out. She is ninth in Iowa history with 1,213 digs and her 212 digs leads the Big Ten.
“The returning players’ experience is very valuable to the newcomers,” Shymansky said. “Even the new players that are transfers have collegiate experience, but have not played in every place in the Big Ten. So they create a cocoon of confidence as we go out on the road and compete in other team’s venues.”
Looking ahead, five of Iowa’s next six opponents are ranked in the nation’s top 25 — Penn State (2), Wisconsin (5), Minnesota (1), Michigan (20), and Nebraska (14) — and preparing for each will be a different test every week.
“We will establish a rhythm,” Shymansky said. “Every year the process changes and morphs as the analytic software changes or as our opponent changes or as we change. Knowledge of your opponent is understanding what they do and being able to impact what they do.”
Iowa opens Big Ten play today at 6 p.m. (CT) against Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey. The team will travel to State College, Pennsylvania, tomorrow for a bout against No. 2-ranked Penn State at 3 p.m. Live results are available on hawkeyesports.com.
By JACK ROSSI