By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in nearly 30 years, the once-maligned Iowa volleyball team is now relevant again.
Fifth-year head coach Bond Shymansky has made Iowa respectable in a power-packed Big Ten Conference where respect doesn’t come easy.
But now comes the real hard part, which is trying to turn something good into something great.
“The past couple years I feel like are some of the strongest teams I’ve ever coached, but you’re always going to get measured against the best teams in the country,” Shymansky said Friday at Iowa's annual media day event. “So you can be really good and it doesn’t get you anything in the Big Ten.
“You have to be great point by point, and there were nights when we were great and there were nights when we weren’t.”
Iowa returns some key players from last season’s team that finished 18-15 overall and 7-13 in the Big Ten, highlighted by 6-foot-3 senior Taylor Louis.
A transfer from Marquette, Louis led Iowa with 386 kills last season. And now much to her surprise, she has the distinction of being the first Hawkeye to be named Preseason All-Big Ten since 2001.
“It’s a really cool thing,” Louis said of being named Preseason All-Big Ten. “It’s for my teammates. I couldn’t have done it without them.
“I was actually a bit surprised when I got that because I didn’t think I really deserved it.”
Shymansky is constantly thinking of ways to motivate his soft-spoken star because he knows that Louis can be truly special when she wants to be.
“Even yesterday in practice I was challenging her to step up more,” Shymansky said. “And I said, you can be really wicked when you want to be. It’s time to want to be that way every single day.
“Instead of kind of licking her wounds a little bit and kind of doubting what I was saying, she knew that to be true and she went for the next five minutes in practice and it was just plain nasty. She’s got that in her and the team follows her when she goes there.”
Iowa was one of the worst programs in the Big Ten, and nationally, when Shymansky was hired to fix things in 2014.
The Iowa City native first had to build a winning culture, but that takes time, especially when you’re trying to do it in arguably the top volleyball conference in the country.
Eight Big Ten teams competed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, which was won by Nebraska.
“When I first got here we really had to pull ourselves up by our boot straps,” Shymansky said. “We were constantly at the bottom of the league and now we kind of find ourselves in the eight, nine spot, and now we need to make another step forward. And we know that if you’re top eight in the league you’re going to be in the NCAA Tournament and you’ll likely end up being in the top 25.”
Shymansky has noticed a positive change after having back-to-back winning seasons.
“Back-to-back winning seasons seep into the way the players feel about themselves, how they carry themselves, how they train, the discipline that they have,” Shymansky said. “But also just the belief. They go out there and expect to win when they play. And it takes a lot to convince them that’s what they’re capable of. And my belief is not nearly as important as theirs. And when they believe in themselves, and in each other, then they tend to get good things done.”
Iowa welcomed six freshmen and one transfer to the team over the summer, and that includes Griere Hughes, who played her freshman season at Arizona State despite always wanting to be a Hawkeye. Hughes recorded 325 kills as a freshman last season and she should form a dynamic one-two punch with Louis on the front line.
“It’s definitely a program on the rise,” Hughes said of Iowa.“I’m actually pretty familiar with it. Before I committed to Arizona State, I was actually looking at the (Iowa) roster to see if anybody would leave, so I could get to Iowa.
“My biggest goal was to come here and play for Bond.”
That goal didn’t change, even after Arizona State offered Hughes a scholarship. The Fishers, Ind., native still wanted to be a Hawkeye, and now has that opportunity.
“It's funny with a transfer, you tend not to know very much about them because the transfer recruiting process happens in the blink of an eye, so you watch a little bit of video, you kind of remember them when they played in high school,” Shymansky said. “Griere is like the energizer bunny. I'm shocked all practice long, all preseason long. She's our highest jumper every time as we monitor those jumps. And she's got just a really wicked arm swing right now. She's added a lot.”
West Liberty native Molly Kelly also had a long-time goal to play volleyball for Iowa, and she wanted it bad enough to have joined the program as a walk-on. Kelly is now expected to be the team’s starting libero as a senior.
“I came in as a walk-on, but I’ve also been a Hawkeye my whole life,” Kelly said. “This has been my dream. “
The Big Ten isn’t expected to fall off in terms of overall strength, but there are some teams in transition, and Shymansky thinks and hopes that could create an opportunity to climb to the next level.
“The Big Ten always has a lot of depth and I think we would always say the same thing; it’s the strongest conference in the country,” Shymansky said. “But this year more than ever it’s very different. You have teams that were toward the top last year that graduated a lot of starters, a case in point would be Michigan State that graduated its entire starting lineup. That’s pretty rare when that happens. I think there is going to be some real shuffling and it’s great opportunity for us.”
Iowa will face Southern Methodist University in the season opener on Aug. 25 in Nashville, Tenn.