Yeager leads Iowa volleyball's strong suit


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Iowa volleyball head coach Sharon Dingman paused the bustle of a scrimmage-style drill in practice Tuesday to address the team. She reminded the Hawkeyes that Purdue's powerful outside hitter, Ariel Turner, will spike hard all over the court on Thursday and that her players will have to get digs in the front-left side of the court to protect themselves from her.

Defensive specialist Allison Straumann turned to libero Bethany Yeager and said, "You got it, Bethany?"

Yeager nodded, bent over into her ready stance, and looked toward the net.

"Yep," she said.

Iowa is ranked last or second-to-last in the Big Ten in every offensive and defensive category besides service aces (ninth) and digs (seventh).

Yeager, a libero, is ranked sixth in the conference with 421 digs.

"She's just a great worker," Dingman said. "One of the things that makes her a great libero is her unbelievable work ethic. And then, Bethany's got great leadership, which is a huge characteristic we look for in a libero. She's got that leadership quality that's so important.

"And then, on top of that, her skills are good."

The Hawkeyes are notably smaller in stature than most of their Big Ten opponents, so they have to rely on defense to stay alive against the conference's big hitters.

"From the beginning, we said that defense had to be our strength," said right-side hitter Tiffany Nilges, who stands 5-11. "We lack in height, and we don't have someone who can come in and necessarily get that huge kill. But we do have a lot of people on this team who can play defense, who can dig. Being undersized, we have to focus on that."

The Hawkeyes have struggled to improve their 1-13 Big Ten record, but they say they're working on scoring points off long rallies and not losing patience during tough matches.

Yeager said defense plays a heavy role in Iowa's offensive strategy.

"It all starts with the first contact," she said. "When any of us can get a good dig or a good pass, it sets us up for Nikki [Dailey] to set a good set and then one of our hitters to get a good kill."

But Iowa's defense broke down in its 3-0 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 4, when Yeager, suffering from an undiagnosed back injury, had to leave the game in the third set.

Yeager tallied only four digs before leaving the match. Straumann replaced her and wore the libero jersey for the first time this season. She struggled, only managing one dig in the set.

Freshman defensive specialist Kari Mueller remains off the court with a foot injury. Straumann has played in only 36 sets this year and averages 1.12 digs per set. She's followed by fellow defensive specialist Grace Burns, who has played in 21 sets and recorded one dig per set.

Yeager averages 4.3.

Yeager has received treatment from athletics training staff since missing her first set of the year last week, including tape, a back brace, and medication. She said she is feeling "a lot better" since the match with the Spartans.

But even if she had to sit out another set or two, Yeager said she's not worried about the defensive strength of her team.

Three other Hawkeyes have broken the 100-dig mark this year. Outside hitter Megan Eskew falls in behind Yeager in team digs with 290; Dailey has racked up 237, and Nilges has 189.

"We have so many people on our team who can dig — that's what we're best at, obviously," Yeager said, referencing Iowa's seventh-place spot in conference digs. "That's how we say we're going to win a game — by our defense."

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