By JACK ROSSI
IOWA CITY, Iowa — With a new head coach and a young, talented core of student-athletes, the University of Iowa softball team just wanted an opportunity to continue their season.
The Hawkeyes got it.
On the brink of elimination, the Hawkeyes pulled out a 1-0 upset over Ohio State on May 3 to all but secure their spot in the Big Ten Tournament this week.
“We are excited to make it back to Big Tens this year,” Iowa head coach Renee Gillispie said. “This team has worked so hard and you have seen how they have progressed throughout the season.”
Iowa held the tiebreaker over Maryland and leapfrogged the Terrapins for the final tournament spot. With the regular season behind them, the Hawkeyes begin the third phase of their 2019 season.
“The biggest thing we talk about is our three seasons,” Gillispie said. “We have our first season, which is all of our tournament play, then we go into Big Ten play. Lastly, you play all season for this moment to play in the conference tournament and go to the NCAA Regional.”
Winning the Big Ten Tournament remains Iowa’s only chance for an NCAA Regional berth and that campaign begins Thursday morning in the opening game of the tournament against fifth-seeded Wisconsin.
Iowa dropped all three contests to the Badgers in early April, but Iowa enters the postseason a different team than before.
“(Wisconsin) took three from us the last time we played against them and it’s tough to win four games against any team, so that may help us,” Gillispie said. “It was early in the Big Ten season and we were still finding ourselves. We are a lot stronger than we were before.”
The Hawkeyes hope to be more selective at the plate and more discipline in the field, while a new arm in the circle should give a new look to the rest of the conference.
Sophomore pitcher Sarah Lehman’s emergence has given Iowa a second quality arm it didn’t have early in the season.
“Sarah has done a tremendous job this year,” assistant coach Rick Dillinger said. “She came in a little rusty from playing volleyball the year before, but she has grown so much. She is hungry and works extremely hard. We are excited where she is, but we are really excited about what she might become as she gets older and more experienced.”
The Iowa City, Iowa, native has thrown in five of Iowa’s last seven games, with four starts.
Lehman is one of the newcomers who has heard about the Hawkeyes’ upset win a year ago when a 12th-seeded Iowa team took down the fifth-seeded Buckeyes.
“It proves the postseason is open for anyone,” junior Allison Doocy said. “We are excited to play again. We beat Ohio State last year when we were in the 12 spot, so we are motivated to try and do that again.”
The Hawkeyes (19-31) face the Badgers (38-11) on Thursday at 10 a.m. (CT) on Andy Mohr Field in Bloomington, Indiana. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network.
“Whoever wants it is going to take it,” Gillispie said. “This is our opportunity to move further into the postseason.”