By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – After learning that Renee Gillispie would be the new softball coach for the University of Iowa, sophomore Aralee Bogar started doing her research.
Bogar wanted to learn all she could about her new head coach, and the more she learned about Gillispie, the more Bogard was convinced that Iowa had hired the right person to rebuild the once-proud softball program.
Bogar feels even more confident now after having been around Gillispie since June.
“Honestly, it was what I prayed for, so it was perfect,” Bogar said at Iowa’s annual media day event on Friday. “Coach G is amazing and I have full confidence in her.”
When asked what makes Gillispie so special, Bogar described an atmosphere in which the players are made to feel confident and empowered.
“The way that she treated us as a family and encouraged us as players and really believed in us, that’s something we need as players,” Bogar said. That our coaches have confidence in us is going to make us play big.
“That’s what she brought to the team.”
Gillispie also brought a wealth of head coaching experience after having spent the previous 18 seasons as the head coach for Central Florida where she won five conference titles and went to seven NCAA Regionals.
She replaces Marla Looper who resigned under pressure last May after having compiled a 172-247-1 record in eight seasons at Iowa, including 21-32 this past season.
Iowa flirted with success under Looper, but couldn’t come close to matching what the program had achieved under her predecessor, Gayle Blevins.
Blevins won 40 or more games in 13 of her 23 seasons at Iowa, including a career-high 53 wins in 1991, 52 wins in 1997 and 50 wins in 2005. She also led the Hawkeyes to 16 NCAA tournaments, four Women's College World Series appearances, five Big Ten regular season championships, and two Big Ten Tournament titles.
“A life-time dream to be able to come back to Iowa,” said Gillispie, who is a native of Danville. “Being a homegrown girl and seeing the Hawkeyes be so successful over so many years with Gayle Blevins at the helm, I’m just excited to be able to come back and get this program back to the strength that it was before and be able to take this group and take them all the way.
“The World Series is always our goal, and being able to see some good thing from this year is going to be exciting to watch.”
Gillispie noticed right away after taking over at Iowa that the culture needed to change. The program had struggled for nearly a decade, and the lack of success had caused doubt to creep in.
“What we saw that needed the most change was just the culture of the program,” Gillispie said. “Just learning how to win again. Understanding that they have the strengths and the abilities, the confidence back for the girls to be able to be competitive.
“We’re playing for such an important state. We’re playing for the state of Iowa. You always see the fight for Iowa. This is what we’re all about. And fight for our community. So it’s getting that culture back and understanding that you’re not out here alone. You’ve got the entire state behind you and we’re here to do a job.”
One area where Looper either struggled or simply neglected was recruiting players from in state.
Gillispie is determined to change that.
“Absolutely. Our first priority was to keep the Iowa kids in Iowa,” Gillispie said. “We’ve got a great group of 2019 kids that we signed in November, a lot of them are from Iowa. The 2020 class that we’ve already got currently committed, the majority are from Iowa.
“We’re just trying to get that culture back and that excitement about being a Hawkeye and staying in your state.”
Iowa assistant coach Rick Dillinger was hired to help with the pitchers and to oversee the instate recruiting. Dillinger spent the last 42 seasons as an Iowa high school softball coach, and he also coached Gillispie at Danville High School from 1976-79.
"He's the one that we're really looking forward to helping out with the pitching side of it," Gillispie said. "But he also brings the recruiting tool, to be able to contact and connect with all the high school coaches that he's been with for the last 35 years.
"He's the key for our recruiting in Iowa, and he's doing a great job with it."
Gillispie believes the pieces are place for Iowa to finish in the top five in the Big Ten, which would secure a spot in the conference tournament.
She singled out Bogar, pitcher Allison Doocy and the team’s two seniors, Erin Riding and Mallory Kilian, as leaders on and off the field.
Gillispie described Boga as an emerging star.
“Bogar, what you’re going to see is probably a top-25 player to watch this year,” Gillispie said of her talented shortstop from Texas. “She does everything that we ask her to do. She’s got the speed and the strength. She’s a triple-threat at the plate.
“So those are the kids that are kind of stepping up and showing us where are bases are and the expectations that we have for this program.”
Gillispie said Iowa’s tradition in softball makes her job easier in some respects, but also harder in some respects as she tried to rebuild the program at a time when the Big Ten Conference is loaded with powerful softball programs.
“The Big Ten is a great conference for softball,” Gillispie said. “It’s so competitive with Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota, they’re all coming through. Indiana is getting stronger. Illinois is getting stronger. You’re starting to see these teams really stepping up.
“It’s going to be tough competition for us. Realistic goals that we have, we want to be in the top five. We want to be able to be in the conference tournament and win the conference tournament this year. We have the ability for the pitching staff and we have the ability now to be able to do that. It’s just being confident and buying in and realize you’ve got a job to do.”
Former Regina star Saran Lehman is one of the newcomers to the team. She transferred to Iowa after playing volleyball for Coe College as a freshman.
Lehman missed playing softball where she was a star pitcher in high school, so she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play the in her hometown and as a Hawkeye.
“I think that year was good for me, taking that year off, I really realized how much I missed it and how much I wanted to come back to it,’ Lehman said. “It’s closer to my home, too, and I’ve always wanted to be a Hawkeye, so I thought I would just reach out and it worked out for me to just come and see what I can do.”
Iowa will face Bucknell in the season opener on Feb. 8th in Baton Rouge, La., as part of the 2019 Tiger Classic.