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Iowa volleyball brings in the big boys

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | SEPTEMBER 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa volleyball team is smaller than rest of the Big Ten.

Spenser Clark, at 6-3 and 225 pounds, isn’t.

The Hawkeyes make up for their relative lack of size with speed and agility, but having only themselves to play against in practice means they would be unprepared to compete against the brawn of their conference competitors. Because of that, male volleyball players such Clark practice regularly with the Iowa women to help them prepare for the size and strength of the Big Ten.

Clark and other two other players from the Iowa men’s volleyball club team practice with the women’s team two or three days a week. This is the second year the Hawkeyes have used the male players.

“We give the girls a different look at things, because they just don’t have the size,” Clark said. “We come in and put up bigger blocks, we swing a little harder at them, and we give them more game-situation reps and experience they don’t have just on their own.”

Bigger and more physical players make a difference in the game for reasons other than pure muscle.

When a hitter can jump higher, the attacker can see around a defender’s block attempt. When they hit, the ball will come to the backcourt from a different angle.

The male practice players set up an ideal level of competition for the Iowa team, senior middle blocker Mallory Husz said. At 6-0, Husz is one of the smallest middles in the Big Ten — but she’s fast.

“The boys really help us because they’re fast, too, so they can kind of match up against us instead of playing against a slow, big middle,” Husz said. “They mirror us, but they also can be that big hitter if they want to and definitely play both roles.”

In addition to setting up bigger blocks, spiking the ball harder, and serving faster than the Hawkeyes can do on their own, the male practice players can mimic the roles of upcoming competitors. After the team watches film, they note the consistent patterns, and then the male practice players adopt those strategies to simulate the game play Iowa will see in upcoming competitions.

“We ask them to be better than the rest of the Big Ten players that we play against,” said assistant coach Ben Boldt, who works closely with the men. “If a player hits one shot, we’ll ask a practice player to hit that shot all week in practice. If somebody blocks a certain shot, we’ll ask the guys to block that same type. They really help us see what it’s going to look like, while at the same time giving us more practice with harder hits.”

Clark, who has played volleyball since he was in junior high, comes to volleyball practice three days a week and participates throughout the entire practice. He treats his obligation like a job, he said, even though he doesn’t receive any compensation for his dedication.

“We definitely appreciate them so much,” Husz said. “Sometimes, we’ll try to sneak them training [supplies] and stuff, because they’re working just as hard as we are — they’re putting the time in, the hard work in. They’ve become so natural to us now in the second year that we don’t necessarily them as practice players.

“I consider them my teammates.”


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