Iowa softball shows signs of improvement in Big Ten play, looks for conference tournament run

Hawkeyes lose regular-season finale to Northwestern

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IOWA CITY — This time last year, the Iowa softball team knew it would be sitting at home for the Big Ten tournament.

Only the top 12 teams (of 14) get in and it was, as senior Kaitlyn “Chip” Mullarkey, put it, something that sat on the teams’ mind throughout summer, fall and winter. This season, the Hawkeyes won’t be on the couch watching.

“We’re hungry for it,” Mullarkey said. “We’re ready to make a big impact in this tournament.”

The team, however, won’t be going into the postseason hot. Sunday’s series finale against Northwestern — a 5-2 loss — gave the Wildcats the series and put the Hawkeyes at 19-31 on the season.

Iowa has played well in spurts during Big Ten play, where the team sits 9-14. A 2-13 neutral site record is a little worrisome as the team heads into the conference tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., though many of those losses came early in the season.

But the Big Ten tournament throws any preconceived notions about a team out the window. Coach Marla Looper says she’s seen her players grow this year, a sentiment echoed by members on her squad. Going on a run in the tournament is very much a possibility in their eyes.

“They don’t quit, they continue to fight,” Looper said. “We’ve seen the young ones mature and the veterans step up and take control.”

After a down year in 2016, when Iowa 3-20 in conference play, having any sort of bounce back was going to be important. The players have bought into what Looper is selling, but putting it all together has taken time.

A run in the Big Ten tournament — which the team was able to do in 2015 — could do wonders for the program. A 19-40 record that year wasn’t pretty, but the Hawkeyes were able to make a run to the Big Ten semifinals as the 10th seed.

It was Megan Blank’s senior year and she helped power her team through the tournament. Now, the Hawkeyes have her back as a volunteer assistant coach.

“The biggest thing is that she’s familiar with how we do things,” Looper said. “She can help preach and teach the little things.”

Looper said Blank is a tremendous help in the dugout, helping the team pick pitches and finding little things that are invaluable to the head coach. The run she helped create in 2015 is just one more thing the Hawkeyes can draw on her experience for.

The Big Ten tournament begins Thursday, with the championship game set for next Sunday. The full schedule will be released Monday.

l Comments: jordan.hansen@thegazette.com

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