Iowa middle blockers struggle, but eventually find success


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Head coach Sharon Dingman said her middle blockers didn't perform up to par in the Iowa volleyball team's loss against No. 24 Ohio State on Sept. 23.

But in the Hawkeyes' game against No. 5 Penn State the next day, the blockers found more success and their performance was a crux for the team's offense against the four-time defending national champions.

Iowa fell to the Buckeyes, 3-1 (25-23, 20-25, 14-25, 18-25), and the main problem was the lack of kills from the middle blockers. With only six kills from the position all night, the rest of Iowa's offense subsequently struggled against Ohio State.

The Hawkeyes then fell to Penn State on Sept. 24, 3-0, (23-25, 23-25, 14-25). Even though the middles only contributed eight kills, their blocking opened up Iowa's outside hitters to gather up more kills against the powerhouse Nittany Lions.

"Once we start making a statement, the middle on the other side has to watch out for us — so that makes our outside [hitters] successful," senior blocker Mallory Husz said. "That's one of our main jobs, and we, as middles, just really need to keep working on that in practice so we can do our job every single game."

Against Ohio State, freshman outside hitter Alex Lovell led the Hawkeyes offensively with 19 kills, followed by senior hitter Tiffany Nilges' 11. In contrast, Husz contributed only four kills, and other middles Chanté Thompson and Erin Leppek only added one each to Iowa's total.

"Tiff played really well … and Alex was a star tonight," Dingman said following the Ohio State game. "But if we don't have everyone playing at that level and if we can't get some offense out of our middles, it's going to be a long road for us. We've got to figure out how to get some offense from other people than Alex and Tiffany."

Leppek noted that by contributing offensively, the middle blockers distract the opponent's middles from blocking Iowa's outside hitters. One of the middle blockers' responsibilities is to draw the opposing team's blockers away from the outside of the net, so Iowa's hitters can kill without facing a strong blocker.

When Iowa's middle blockers didn't perform well against Ohio State, it harmed the whole offense because the Hawkeyes hitters were struggling against a strong Buckeye double block, Dingman said.

Leppek and Husz performed better offensively and defensively against Penn State, giving Iowa more opportunity to compete well and put up a fight against one of the biggest teams in college volleyball.

Ohio State won three sets against Iowa by five points or more and scored 23 more points than the Hawkeyes overall. By contrast, fifth-ranked Penn State won by only two points in the first two sets and scored only 15 points over Iowa.

"Penn State just really made us work harder, so we really stepped it up," Leppek said. "We were a lot faster [against the Nittany Lions] and our blocks stopped them that way. [The Buckeyes] were just hitting it off our hands, and we let them do it the whole game."

Dingman said she doesn't know what made the difference for the blockers from one day to the next — if she did, she'd write a book — but she was pleased with Leppek and Husz' performance against Penn State.

"[Husz] played like a senior middle in a big match," the coach said. "She changed the match even though she wasn't getting kills. And Erin Leppek — a freshman who had probably about her third start in her career, against the No. 5 team in the country — did a fine job. It was good to see."

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