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Iowa volleyball looking to continue 'transformational experience' inside program

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After guiding the Hawkeyes to their most productive year in two-plus decades, a season that injected life into a dormant program, Bond Shymansky knows the forward movement must continue.

Construction doesn’t stop. Goals only enlarge.

Iowa's Annika Olsen warms up during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

“There’s no finish line,” the fourth-year Iowa volleyball coach said Friday at media day inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “There’s no end. There’s no, ‘OK, I’ve done that enough and I’m ready to stop.’ It’s a consistent, constant challenge for our whole group — and that includes me, too.

“And so as we’re kind of growing and learning, we talk about the transformational experience that should be happening inside of our program. And — by the way — the end result is that you win some volleyball games.”

Iowa took a giant leap forward in that department last season, going 19-13 for the Hawkeyes’ first winning season since 2000 and highest win total since 1994. Many of those impact pieces return in 2017, along with another wave of promising transfers, forming a confident squad that feels it can hold its own in the rigorous Big Ten Conference.

An NCAA Tournament appearance remains an attainable benchmark. The Hawkeyes haven’t been there in 22 straights seasons.

“I think this team is special,” senior libero Annika Olsen said. “We have a lot more depth this year at every position than we’ve had before, and I really think that helps us, knowing that we have so many different players who can contribute in different areas. I think we all have really just bought into the culture that Bond has been working so hard to create these past few years.”

Although Iowa must replace graduated starters Lauren Brobst, Loxley Keala and Ashley Mariani, Shymansky again reloaded the roster with Division I transfers, adding middle blocker Kelsey O’Neill from Pittsburgh, outside hitter Taylor Louis from Marquette and City High product Ashley Smith from Omaha.

That trio joins returning weapons Molly Kelly, Reghan Coyle, Meghan Buzzerio, Jess Janota and Olsen, all of whom appeared in 100-plus sets last season.

It’s a veteran nucleus that has welcomed in newcomers with open arms.

“Coming back home into the Big Ten was a different beast that I wasn’t really sure how to conquer,” said Smith, a three-time all-conference selection as a Little Hawk. “And the energy that this team provided coming off from last season is just at a whole new level that I’ve never been a part of.

“So it’s really encouraging because it kind of lifts you up — and you want to be a part of it. And so the energy that they bring to the gym every single day is just a whole new level that is so fun to be part of.”

Iowa's Ashley Smith warms up during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

For that energy to transform into a postseason appearance, the Hawkeyes will again have to sift through a treacherous slate — one that features 15 NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago. Highlighting that group is an early bout with defending national-champion Stanford on Aug. 26 in Long Beach, Calif., as part of the season-opening LBSU Invitational. Other nonconference tourney teams on the schedule include Coastal Carolina, Iowa State, Northern Illinois, Howard, American and Princeton.

Nothing eases up come Big Ten play. Following its conference opener at Rutgers on Sept. 22, Iowa faces five straight teams that ended the 2016 season ranked: Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska.

Those squads, as well as Michigan State, were all ranked in the AVCA preseason coaches poll as well. Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin all landed in the top 10.

Iowa head coach Bond Shymansky speaks with media before practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

“You get into the NCAA Tournament as a Big Ten team,” Shymansky said, “and you have a right to think about being in the Final Four and winning a national title. That's because every night you're competing against national-title caliber teams in the Big Ten.”

After losing seasons in each of Shymansky’s first two years, Iowa finally broke through in 2016.

Now, it’s about keeping momentum flowing.

“The reality is the rubber meets the road there," Shymansky said. "We have to perform and we have to be ready to fight and grind, not just kind of see what happens. I know that we'll be ready as a staff to help lead them that way.”

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