Volleyball's crucial preseason begins


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The Iowa volleyball team hasn't had a winning season since 2000 and hasn't advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1994. But this year, the Hawkeyes are determined to change that — and that begins with their first matches of the 2011 season, at the Hawkeye Challenge this weekend.

Iowa will host Central Michigan at 7 p.m. today in Carver-Hawkeye Arena before inviting St. Louis at 12:30 p.m. and Marquette at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Iowa will compete against 13 nonconference opponents over the next month, then begin the rigorous league schedule on Sept. 23.

Raking up wins in Big Ten games is difficult in one of the best volleyball conferences in the country, so the Hawkeyes will focus on the nonconference schedule. Iowa hopes to gather enough wins to be .500 by the end of the season and therefore have a shot of making it into the NCAA Tournament.

"The nonconference games are more important for us than the Big Ten games — those are the wins that can bring you to the NCAAs," senior outside hitter Tiffany Nilges said. "The Big Ten is honestly just really hard, and you have to win so many games to get a chance to go [to the tournament] that nonconference games are kind of our chance."

In 2009, the Hawkeyes learned the importance of nonconference games when, even after falling to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State (17-16 overall) advanced to NCAAs and the Black and Gold were left behind.

"Two years ago, we finished ahead of [the Spartans], who made it because they had a good preseason schedule," senior Megan Eskew said. "They finished well in the preseason, so even though they finished behind us in the Big Ten, they made it in. That's been some motivation for us."

To prepare for the crucial beginning to their season, the Hawkeyes have to help the freshmen and new players understand the importance of nonconference games.

When appearing in video interviews, most of the freshmen expressed their excitement about the Big Ten games and left the nonconference challenges out, Nilges said. Alarmed, upperclassmen are conditioning the younger players to understand just how important this weekend's games are.

"We don't really talk about winning and losing every day," head coach Sharon Dingman said. "We don't really talk about who we should beat, will beat, [and] can't beat. That just doesn't come up.

"I count on the seniors and juniors to talk to the freshmen. Our older players get it — they just understand the importance of all the parts of the season, so they're showing everyone else."

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