Anybody familiar with the Iowa volleyball program is aware that it is undergoing what could be called an overhaul. Head coach Bond Shymansky did his darnedest in his first season to implement a culture change and revamp the perception of the program. In Year 2, a quick stop at media day on Aug. 21 suggests that the strike is about to hit the court.
If Shymansky’s primary focus last season was on establishing his culture, then his focus in his first off-season was accumulating his own players. The team will return only seven players from 2014, for a variety of reasons, but it has welcomed eight newcomers in their place: four freshmen and four Division-I transfers.
Shymansky said he has time to tinker with his starting lineup but spoke highly of his transfers. Early on, it sounds as if junior setter Loxley Keala (Missouri), junior middle blocker Ashley Mariani (Tennessee), sophomore libero Annika Olsen (Georgia Tech), and sophomore outside hitter Taylr McNeil (South Carolina, and yes; “Taylr” is spelled that way) will all see significant playing time.
“All four transfers have found playing time so far in our starting lineup, but the starting lineup keeps shifting,” Shymansky said. “The talent level has risen.”
In addition to the influx of talent, the Hawkeyes at the end of last season were enjoying the onset of a diversified attack offensively with now-sophomores Jess Janota and Taylin Alm, and junior Lauren Brobst. With a year of improvement, as well as all that’s going on around them, Shymansky’s offense seems equipped to be very problematic for opponents.
“The offense that Bond implemented is going a lot better than it was last year,” senior Mikaela Gunderson said. “It was shaky at times, but now it’s clicking and things are going really well. When you have Taylin, and Brobst, and you have Jess, you have to watch them all and try to block them all. It’s great how many opportunities each one of us are going to get.”
One of the themes of last season was that the team struggled with serve-receive, but numerous players spoke highly of Olsen and her ability to initiate the system with quality first contact. Olsen may not have many kills herself, but her effect will certainly be felt at the net.
The Hawkeyes know who they are — or rather, who they were — and where they are coming from. Long a bottom-dweller in the conference, the team made noticeable strides last season for the first time in many years. Shymansky had an instant effect and more importantly, he has kept the momentum rolling.
There is palpable excitement inside the volleyball facilities, and the players have a sense of surprise, as if all know they’re holding some secret that the rest of the conference has yet to find out.
“We like being the underdog,” Janota said. “We’ve been working, and we can definitely surprise some people this year.”