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Renee Gillispie: 'We just want to give them a good product to put on the field.' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Whether it’s during recruiting trips or out in the community, coach Renee Gillispie can feel the buzz.

People want Iowa softball back among the elite.

“You’re seeing that energy, that excitement,” Gillispie said during Friday’s media day. "We just want to give them a good product to put on the field.”

The Hawkeyes have struggled to do so for some time now. That’s why Gillispie is here.

Over the last eight seasons, Iowa is 75 games under .500 with one tie. It's won more than nine Big Ten games just once. Regional berths have been nothing more than a pipe dream. There’s been no postseason taste since 2009.

So out went Marla Looper and in came Gillispie last summer. A Danville, Iowa, native who most recently launched Central Florida’s softball program off the ground, Gillispie is tasked with another rebuilding job.

“What we saw that needed the most change was just the culture of the program,” Gillispie said. “Just learning how to win again and understanding that they have the strength and abilities —  to have the confidence back in the girls —  to be able to come out and be competitive."

“We’re playing for such an important state. We’re playing for Iowa, and you always see ‘Fight for Iowa.’ That’s what we’re all about, fighting for our community. So getting that culture back and understanding that you’re not here alone — you’ve got the entire state behind you — and we’re here to do a job.”

More: Hawkeyes tab Renee Gillispie as new head coach  

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A look at what Iowa’s program has accomplished before accentuates the disappointment of where the program stands.

Under heralded coach Gayle Blevins (1988-2010), the Hawkeyes surged to 16 NCAA Tournaments, four Women's College World Series appearances, five conference championships, and two Big Ten Tournament titles. The support poured in as Iowa flourished.

Those glory days serve as a benchmark for future success. No one is predicting an instant turnaround given how far the Hawkeyes have fallen, but the school’s strong softball history is a reminder of where this program can go.

“The World Series is always our goal,” Gillispie said, “and being able to take (this team) and see some good things from this year is going to be exciting to watch.”  

The buy-in had to be there from the jump, and all indications are that’s the case. Countless Hawkeyes have slogged through one losing season after another. Everyone is ready for some prosperity.

“If you don’t buy in, we can’t all move forward together,” sophomore Aralee Bogar said. “Just everyone knowing that coach Gillispie knows what’s best for our program — and everyone buying into that — is going to make us better.

“If we’re all on the same page, we’re going to move forward. And if we’re on different pages, we’re going to stay where we are. I think everyone has done a great job with following that lead.”    

An influx of Iowans appears to be the first correction. Too many times during the Looper era, some of the state’s best players ventured elsewhere to play — often to Big Ten schools or other programs on Iowa’s schedule.

Five of the Hawkeyes’ eight 2019 signees announced in November were Iowans. The current roster is 44 percent in-state players (eight of 18). Expect that percentage to increase as Gillispie’s tenure unfolds.

As with most Midwest schools, it’ll be a while before Gillispie’s Iowa City debut. The Hawkeyes’ first 28 games are away from home, split between five tournaments. That includes one midweek game at Illinois State and their conference-opening series at Purdue. Iowa’s home opener is March 27 against Western Illinois.

Time will tell if this is the start of Iowa’s softball revival. For now, though, everyone is saying the right things.  

“The coaching staff has this high standard that everyone has bought into,” sophomore Sarah Lehman said. “We’re just excited to get it going.”    

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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