IOWA CITY – Sharon Dingman knew it. Under her watch, a trip to West Lafayette, Ind. meant a return home to Iowa City with a loss. In fact the last time the Hawkeyes beat Purdue on the road was 2000.
But history couldn’t tell the story her eyes did. She knew something was different.
“Monday or Tuesday I went into (assistant coaches) Ben (Boldt) and Jason’s (Allen) office and I said, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s coming, I can just see it,’” said Dingman, Iowa’s head volleyball coach. “They were approaching things differently.”
‘They’ were sophomore Alex Lovell and junior Rachel Bedell.
It started with Iowa’s third and fourth straight Big Ten losses to start the season. In four conference matches, the Hawkeyes won a single set. The most recent defeats came at the hands of Michigan and Michigan State – both 3-0 sweeps at home.
The next practice, Dingman saw a change.
“It was just the attitude that we’re not going to be pushed around anymore,” Lovell said. “It stops here.”
The mentality traveled to Bloomington and then West Lafayette resulting in Iowa's first back-to-back road wins since 2005. It beat Indiana 3-1 and swept Purdue 3-0. The Hawkeyes turned a page in their history, but also wanted to write their own.
They acted out the script before. Last year against Purdue, Iowa held a 2-0 lead before losing 3-2. Saturday they installed an alternate ending.
“That happened to us with a lot last year. We’d be up 2-0, or it would got of five against ranked teams last years, and we couldn’t close for the life of us,” junior Nikki Daily said. “We just didn’t have it in us for what the difference is to be up 2-0 and close or be up 2-0 and then give a little leeway for the other team to sneak back in.”
The growth started by looking in the mirror. As a freshman Lovell started 28 games including the final 12. That momentum plateaued early this season.
“Alex struggles with blasting balls to the left back just over and over and over. In practice we’re like, ‘Every team in this conference knows you’re going to do that, so you need to switch it up,’” Dailey said. “So lately she’s been trying to address that.”
Lovell admitted to a bad habit of trying to wear out the opponents’ libero rather than spreading her attacks out.
Last weekend in Indiana, a refocused week of practice came to fruition. She and Bedell led Iowa with 37 kills apiece on the road trip. Lovell also turned in three aces, 14 digs and averaged nearly six kills a set.
“ In order to be successful you’ve got to mix it up more and hit right back versus left back all the time, add some tips in there,” Lovell said. “So it was definitely something that was different for me to change but I’ve embraced it in the past week.”
Other’s noticed the maturation of the sophomore’s game. The Big Ten named Lovell the conference’s player of the week, the first time a Hakweye received the award since 2006.
“It’s definitely that confidence boost that what you are doing is working,” Lovell said. “It’s just that thing you need to continue into next week.”
It wont' get any easier. The level of play the Hawkeyes brought against the Boilermakers may still not be enough this weekend. Iowa hosts No. 10 Minnesota on Friday and follows it up with a visit from Wisconsin on Saturday.
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The following weekend welcomes No. 3 Nebraska into the Carver-Hawkeye Arena before the Hawkeyes have home matches versus No. 1 Penn State and No. 19 Ohio State during the weekend of Oct. 24.
“It’s just another week in the Big Ten. Oh when will it get easier,” Dingman wondered out loud before practice on Tuesday. “The NCAA Tournament. That’s about the only time we think it could get easier.”
In order to get there, the Hawkeyes have to maintain the killer instinct it showed in their previous two wins. It’s not something that can be learned overnight, but maybe it is something that can be taken out of a weekend trip to Indiana.
“I feel like now we finally know winning’s a learning experience,” Dailey said. “We’ve finally learned how to finish games and win.”