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Iowa volleyball freshmen see familiar faces

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | AUGUST 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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When freshman Alex Lovell walked into her first preseason volleyball practice on Aug. 9, she said, she was “incredibly, extremely nervous.”

But Lovell wasn’t as anxious as she could have been, because she walked in side-by-side with her teammate of two years, Erin Leppek.

The Iowa volleyball team includes two pairs of freshmen from the same hometowns — Lovell and Leppek from the Detroit area and Kari Mueller and Alli O’Deen from Iowa City.

Each pair played together for the same club teams before joining the Hawkeyes. Lovell and Leppek played for Michigan Elite Volleyball for two years, and Mueller and O’Deen played on various club teams together for around six years.

Having over half the incoming class hailing from the same cities has been an advantage for the Hawkeyes, but the coaches didn’t necessarily plan it that way.

“I don’t think it influenced us that [the recruits] were from the same area or that they played for the same club, but it’s been nice to have a familiar face,” head coach Sharon Dingman said.

Outside hitter Lovell and middle blocker Leppek don’t interact much on the floor, and neither do outside hitter O’Deen and Mueller, who plays libero/defensive specialist.

Playing different positions doesn’t mean there is no chemistry between the former teammates on the floor, however. Instead of direct interaction between the pairs, their familiarity with each other helps them encourage their teammates on another level.

“Even in just simple ways, they can help each other,” Dingman said. “When you’re struggling, or something’s rough, or you’re just having a bad day, it’s nice to look at someone’s familiar face and start thinking, ‘OK, I can do this. I’ve seen her around before, [and] she knows I can do it.’ ”

While Dingman said she hasn’t witnessed anything special between the freshmen, she doesn’t doubt it’s there. The rest of the Hawkeyes have noticed a special bond between the childhood teammates.

“One thing I noticed about Alli and Kari is that they were really good friends,” senior Tiffany Nilges said. “They always have that one person they know they can go to and talk about whatever is going on with school or volleyball or anything in their lives.”

Knowing each other before beginning their college careers has helped the freshmen eliminate some of the jitters and anxiety of not only playing volleyball for the first time at Iowa, but also getting through the first few weeks of college.

“Going to class the first time was really nerve-racking [on Monday], but being able to go home and talk to [O’Deen] about everything helped a lot,” said Mueller, who rooms with her fellow Iowa City native. “It’s nice to know that you’re close with someone who’s just like family and that she’s always there.”

The familiarity and comfort level between the freshmen affects the rest of the team. The Mueller and O’Deen friendship and Lovell/Leppek pair will hopefully push the Hawkeyes’ on-court performance to a new level as the couples push and encourage each other, Mueller said.

“We know each other like the back of our hands,” Mueller said. “We know each other’s weaknesses, so when we’re practicing I know what to push her, on and she knows what to push me on.

“That’s going to make us better.”


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