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Volleyball non-starters start to shine

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | OCTOBER 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa volleyball team is stuck in the middle of a five-game, 15-set losing streak. So head coach Sharon Dingman has turned to her nonstarters to enter the game to "start a fire or put a fire out."

Iowa's offensive leaders — outside hitters Alex Lovell, Megan Eskew, and Tiffany Nilges — struggled offensively in the past four games. Lovell, the team's kill leader to date, has hit negative in three of Iowa's last four games. Nilges played only four of the six sets and hit negative in two games. Eskew hasn't hit over .200.

But middle blocker Chante' Thompson started her first Big Ten match against Wisconsin on Oct. 16, and she has collected 18 kills in 11 sets.

Thompson continued to start against Nebraska on Oct. 19, when she led the Hawkeyes offensively with five kills. She started again against Northwestern, and collected the second-most kills of any Iowa player.

"When we first put Chante' in … we just felt we needed her spark of personality, [and] then all of a sudden, she's playing really well, too," Dingman said. "When we're in the midst of a pretty serious losing streak and Chante' can still bring that personality to the floor, that's critical to where we are right now."

Iowa struggled early against Northwestern and lost the first two sets, (25-16, 25-11). The Black and Gold started the third set in much the same way, and trailed by at least 2 points all the way until it was 8-10. But when that score was reached, the Hawkeyes — having only recorded one kill in the set — got back-to-back kills from Rachel Bedell and Thompson to tie the set 10-10. Thompson smiled as the spiked the ball over the net, putting the Hawkeyes back within striking distance.

But despite tallying eight more kills following Thompson's momentum shift, Iowa lost the third set — and the match — 25-18.

The Hawkeyes are struggling to find anyone who can play consistently from game to game. As result of the current losing streak, Iowa is starting to use its nonstarters more.

Defensive specialist Grace Burns had only played a total of three sets in Big Ten play before getting in on two sets against both Nebraska and Northwestern. She became Iowa's go-to defensive specialist off the bench after the team's other defensive specialists were ineffective; Kari Mueller was injured, and Allison Straumann struggled on the court.

Now, Burns enters the game when the opponent's serving is beating Iowa's back-row players. Burns said her job is to stop the competitor's serving run and, by successfully returning serves, help the Hawkeyes start a run of their own.

"We're just searching for anyone who can be consistent at this point," Straumann said. "We've gone through a lot of bumps throughout the road, and we're just trying to see what's going to work. Nothing is definite at this point; it changes week by week."

The nonstarter's success hasn't been enough to lift the Hawkeyes out of their doldrums, though, and Iowa is still searching for its second Big Ten win.

"All of us as a whole are struggling, so we're just trying to work hard because that's what we know how to do," Thompson said. "We're all in a rut right now, so we're just trying to figure out how to get out of it. That's the most frustrating thing — we don't really know why we're struggling."

The inability to perform well in conference play is the fault of the whole team, Burns said — so as a result, the entire team is trying to scrape together enough consistency to manage a win.

"We're all working for the same goal; we have to remember that we're all on the same page," she said. "All we want is a win for Iowa, so it doesn't matter who's on the court … We've had a lot more downs than ups recently, but we're sticking by each other, trying to just get it done."


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