Iowa Hawkeyes women's soccer out to prove NCAA Tournament run was no fluke

In the spring, Iowa women’s soccer captivated the Hawkeye fanbase with an unexpected and attention-grabbing late-season run. After starting the season 2-8-1, the team reeled off five wins in a row resulting in their first Big Ten conference tournament championship and first win ever in the NCAA Tournament, a 1-0 victory over Campbell.

The Hawkeyes were only a few minutes away from upsetting No. 3 seed UCLA and advancing to the quarterfinals but fell 2-1.

Only four months later, Iowa women's soccer is back on the field playing regular season matches.  

Women's soccer is usually played in the fall. Last year their season was moved to the spring due to NCAA precautions. This year, athletics calendars are back to their traditional schedule. 

It's made for a rapid turnaround. But the Hawkeyes appear to have not missed a beat from their run earlier this year. 

They've won their first four matches (two of them exhibitions) and will have their regular season home opener on Thursday night against rival Iowa State, the first Cy-Hawk contest of the year. 

So … was last season’s run merely a blip or is it a sign of what’s to come? During the short turnaround time in between season's, that's been a conversation among this year's team.

"It's just the beginning," senior defender Sara Wheaton said. "We still have so many expectations for ourselves and we set the standard even higher and now we have even more we have to achieve and even more that expect not only for ourselves but each other." 

Previously:2021 NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament: No. 3 UCLA survives vs. Iowa with late-game goals

In the spring, Iowa women’s soccer captivated the Hawkeye fanbase with their improbable and magical late-season run. This season, they're hoping to carry that momentum forward into another successful year.

With a new season and heightened expectations come a new challenge: the quickest turnaround of any collegiate sport. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season was moved from it's normal fall schedule to the spring.

Iowa's season ended on April 30, and players didn't report to camp until Aug. 3. Their first regular season contest was on Aug. 19 

"We don't have the build-up that other sports have," head coach David Dilanni said. "Basketball has months before they have to play a regular season game; football has a month. Us, field hockey and volleyball have two weeks. That's just not enough time when you don't have access to your players in the summer." 

Previously:Iowa women's soccer continues postseason run with NCAA Tournament win over Campbell

Here's how Iowa's women's soccer's off-season went: Dilanni and the coaching staff gave the players about a month off to recharge mentally and physically. During the summer players are given workout packets and physical fitness requirements that must be completed whether they're on staying on-campus or somewhere else. 

Dilanni said most of the team reported back to campus after the July 4 break. Compared to normal years, that's a late report date.

However, it's been an abnormal past year and a half. 

What's working in their favor? Experience.

Their team only loses one senior from last season: starting right back Diane Senkowski. The Hawkeyes fielded a young team last year that now has NCAA Tournament experience under their belt. 

Their team identity is on defense. Each win in last year's Big Ten tournament and NCAA Tournament came by a 1-0 shutout. But Dilanni sees the potential in this year's team to be more well-rounded. 

"We're a bit more athletic now," Dilanni said. "We have some pieces, some players who can score goals so now we're starting to phase in that area of our game." 

This year's team is far from a finished product but have started the regular season 2-0 officially, including a 1-0 road win over No. 21 St. Louis. 

More:Iowa women's soccer coach Dave DiIanni a bit of a 'mad scientist'

So far, the team that fans saw virtually winning in the spring has carried that success into the fall. Dilanni has high expectations for this season including a return back to the NCAA Tournament.

And the home opener offers the chance for fans to see them play since their meteroric rise last season. 

"Seeing how you can rally a community together through a sport was insane to see," Wheaton said. "I think it's important for us to keep this vibe going." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com