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Leistikow: How Iowa's other fall sports are preparing amid coronavirus concerns

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

In addition to playing games of “Where’s Waldo?” and “Family Feud” during team Zoom calls, Iowa women’s soccer players have shared laughter during the longest offseason ever through headphone karaoke — in which one person belts out a popular tune. She can't hear her voice, but the rest of the group can.

“I can tell you we don’t have a ton of good singers in the Iowa soccer program,” Hawkeye women’s coach Dave Dilanni jokes, “but that’s kind of the fun part about it.

“It’s all fun to get a laugh, but a lot of it is just building a bit of trust and vulnerability and team chemistry.”

Iowa women's volleyball players, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, have collectively been watching “When They See Us” — a heavy true-crime miniseries on Netflix —  to break into discussions about what coach Vicki Brown says were previously taboo topics.

The women's soccer team (including Jenny Cape, right, from the Cy-Hawk game last season) was originally scheduled to be the earliest-starting athletics program for Iowa this fall. The wait continues to see what the fall campaign actually holds for college sports.

“We’ve taken this opportunity to get closer and maybe make their relationships a little bit deeper,” says Brown, who is the only Black head coach in Iowa's athletics department and part of the Big Ten's Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. "… Players seem to be enjoying it and feel like they’re being more educated, which is good.”

While the sports-watching nation is fixated on whether there will be a college football season or not, the wait is equally tense and unusual for Iowa's lesser-discussed fall sports programs: women’s soccer, volleyball, field hockey and cross country.

Women’s soccer traditionally is the first program of 24 at Iowa to kick off the sports calendar. It was initially scheduled to have an Aug. 9 exhibition match. But nobody knows for sure if or when fall sports will begin.

The Big Ten Conference last week announced league-only scheduling for its fall-sports programs, meaning non-conference tournaments have been scrapped. The Atlantic Coast Conference last week announced it wouldn’t start any fall competitions until at least Sept. 1; while the Big Ten hadn’t followed suit as of Monday morning, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the season is delayed until at least then.

Players can currently participate in voluntary workouts. The first official practice is schedule for Aug. 4, and Dilanni says he and the rest of the staff will wear masks. He is hopeful for a 14-game regular season, rather than the usual 20.

“I will do whatever I can,” he says, “to help my team have as normal a season as possible.”

Volleyball has navigated its own unique season anticipation, with this fall marking a transition to a new home court at the new 5,100-seat Xtream Arena in Coralville. While the situation remains fluid, the Hawkeyes were originally scheduled to have their first game there Sept. 18. As of late last week, the plan was still to allow a limited number of fans in attendance. (That is consistent with football planning for limited attendance, until further notice.)

“We’re trying to fine-tune what a manageable number (of fans) is,” Brown says. “Because the biggest thing is how you get people to go in and how you get people to go out.”

This week, Brown expects to have 13 of her 17 players on campus for workouts. They are playing the waiting game. But unlike other fall sports, volleyball takes place indoors, which could become a factor. The World Health Organization last week said that the coronavirus can linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces.

"This is not a one-size-fits-all season," Brown says. "It’s really going to be within your conference and within your state what you can do."

Iowa coach Vicki Brown has been fielding lots of questions from her players this offseason, including about the response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

With so many headlines surrounding football, it's easy to forget how many young men and women in other sports are worried about their season and eager to return to the field or court. 

Volleyball is trying to turn the page to a new chapter under Brown, whose interim tag was removed in September after previous coach Bond Shymansky was ousted after a player-paying scandal. What a challenge Brown is facing during her first full offseason as a Division I head coach.

“This is the longest my players have ever gone since they started playing volleyball not playing volleyball,” she notes.

In field hockey, Iowa is aiming to build on a 2019 that saw it win the Big Ten regular-season and postseason championships for the first time in school history.

In soccer, Dilanni doesn't want to relinquish program momentum, either. The Hawkeyes tied a program-record in 2019 with 15 victories, and six of 11 starters are back. Plans to build a $4 million soccer-operations facility was approved in May.

Meantime, Dilanni continues to prepare his team for an unknown season ahead. While most Zoom meetings have centered on tactics and strategy, he thinks about those goofy karaoke sessions. They speak to (or sing to) this unusual-but-productive offseason.

“This might be the closest team I’ve ever coached,” Dilanni says. “All we’ve had is each other, during this challenging time. And we’ve kind of leaned on each other for support.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.