Hawkeye women's basketball players share musical pasts

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The piano in Lisa Bluder’s home is like a magnet for two of her Iowa women’s basketball players.

When the Hawkeyes gather for a team dinner at their coach’s house, it’s a safe bet that Amanda Ollinger and Hannah Stewart will spend a little time rekindling their musical passions, the ones they’ve put on hold while pursuing basketball excellence.

Ollinger, a freshman from Cedar Rapids, is classically trained, competing in city and regional competitions from the second through 10th grades.

Amanda Ollinger (center) plays some defense in a state tournament game while competing for Linn-Mar High School. The Hawkeye forward gave up playing the piano to pursue basketball.

Stewart, a sophomore from Minot, N.D., plays piano by ear. Her instrument of choice from fourth through 12th grade was the violin.

Both Hawkeye forwards said at the team’s media day Wednesday that there are similarities between success in music and athletics.

“The coordination, I feel like, is the same because You don’t want to look down at your fingers. You always have to know where all the keys are and how to make all the transitions,” Ollinger said. “Which I feel like is the same as basketball. When you fill spots, you don’t want to look at the spot and then say, ‘OK, now I’m ready to catch the basketball.’”

Stewart wasn’t a soloist on the violin. But she concurred that the lessons learned in music have carried over to the basketball court.

“I think they’re similar in that they both require time and you have to invest in it in order to become good at it. Being in an orchestra is very similar to working as a team," she said. "You have to follow the conductor. You have to follow the coach’s instructions. You have to be on beat with your section.

“You have to perform.”

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A 6-foot-2 natural post player, Stewart is looking to perform much more this season after seeing only 27 minutes of action as a freshman. A former Miss Basketball in North Dakota after averaging 19.3 points and 11.8 rebounds as a high school senior, Stewart has been shifted to a power forward position now, which makes her essentially another guard on offense.

“I’ve spent hours upon hours in the gym working on my shot, working on my ball-handling,” said Stewart, who once spent 10 hours a week practicing the violin. “I’ve learned to use my physical presence a little bit more I think.”

Even at her coach’s most recent team dinner. Stewart laughingly relayed a story about getting into a wrestling match in Bluder’s house with freshman guard Makenzie Meyer.

“It got pretty intense, but it was fun,” Stewart said, pausing. “I’ll let you ask Makenzie who won.”

Ollinger didn’t start playing sports until the seventh grade. She was a 5-foot-10 point guard on a Wilson Middle School team that had only five players. And she loved every second of it.

It wasn’t until three years later, though, that she decided to put away the piano to concentrate on basketball, once she started hearing from college recruiters.

Ollinger’s playing time on a deep Hawkeye team may be limited in her rookie year. She said she’s prepared for that.

“She can shoot the 3 with ease, but she can also get in there on the boards and she can post up anybody,” Bluder said of Ollinger, a Linn-Mar graduate. “She’s just got to continue to figure out how to use her strengths, and once she does, she’s going to be a great contributor for us.”

Ollinger, at 6-1, played every position in high school, scoring 1,343 points while pulling down 780 rebounds in a career that began at Cedar Rapids Jefferson.

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“Whether I sit on the bench all year cheering on my teammates, I feel like that’s just as important as if I would start,” she said.

Ollinger has experience sitting on a bench and being in the spotlight simultaneously.

“You practiced for a whole year for this one competition,” she said of her piano past, when she favored Mozart and Bach. “I was really good at playing keys that were far apart, because I have really long fingers. So I would always do a lot of songs where you have to stretch 10 keys, 12 keys, really bounce back and forth. Because not everyone has long fingers.”

Spoken like an athlete, always looking for an edge.

Ollinger said she misses playing the piano and will take it up again once her basketball career is over. Her parents, Scott and Bonnie, are building a new house in Marion. There will be a room for Amanda, their only child.

There will be another touch of home as well.

“I do still have a piano,” Ollinger said. “My mom was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to get rid of this?’ I was like, 'We cannot get rid of my piano.”