116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Good luck finding anything at an Iowa volleyball practice that does not have a score.
“The whole practice is scored,” head coach Jim Barnes said. “Something’s on the line for everything.”
The goal is to gain as many “winner points” as possible, which three managers tabulate on the side of the court.
The winner of a drill might get a point. If one side is hitting too many balls out, he might give “winner points” to the opposing side for every ball hit out of bounds. The closer someone is to the points leader, or the “queen,” the less running they’ll have to do after practice.
“So that competition makes them do what I want them to do — hit less balls out or get more kills,” Barnes said. “It’s the most brilliant thing over the years I think we’ve ever done.”
The goal is to prepare players for the competitiveness of matches considering Barnes has “never been in a game where they don’t keep the score.”
The winning points in practice have not translated to winning matches in the Big Ten, though, in the first year of Barnes’ rebuild.
Iowa went 10-21 in 2022 and 4-16 in Big Ten play. It was Iowa’s third consecutive 4-16 finish in the conference.
The man who scores almost everything in practice has been trying to look beyond the scoreboard in games.
“All you see is those numbers in the public eye,” Barnes told The Gazette, referencing the conference and overall records. “There’s a lot more victories that they’re not seeing that we’re proud of.”
Having “everybody pulling together” on a team with several new faces is an example of the victories for Barnes that “don’t show on the scoreboard.”
Barnes especially has pride in Iowa’s success in serve-pass.
“That’s something you don’t see on the stat sheet,” Barnes said. “We beat almost every team in serve-pass. … Coaches would come up to me and go, ‘I cannot believe you all just beat us in serve-pass.’ ... I go, ‘Well, we’ve got to win that because you’re going to win the block and kills.’”
Iowa had close calls, taking No. 5 Purdue and No. 14 Penn State to five sets. Purdue fans standing outside Iowa’s locker room told Barnes “we haven’t seen that from Iowa” as his team exited.
Iowa’s wins to close the season against Michigan and Michigan State showed the “reality that the middle of the league is not really that far away,” Barnes said.
"Our next step is getting to the middle of the league,“ Barnes said.
Had Iowa, ranked 133rd in RPI, not beaten Michigan, Barnes is confident the Wolverines would have earned an NCAA berth.
But his Hawkeyes need to win matches against teams like Michigan and Michigan State on a regular basis to take the program to the next level. Iowa split its matches against last-place Rutgers and also suffered losses to Maryland and Northwestern.
“The distance isn’t as far as some people think, but you’ve still got to get the talent to do it consistently, and that’s what we’re working on,“ Barnes said.
Barnes has turned to the transfer portal to quickly build his roster.
In his first offseason in Iowa City, Barnes added seven transfers. He usually does not release players from the program, he said, although last year fell under “extenuating circumstances.”
He is active in pursuing players from the portal after the 2022 season as well, asking current players to notify him this week whether they’re staying or intending to transfer so he knows how many scholarships he can offer.
But the transfer portal has been a two-way street. Players Iowa lost amid the coaching change have found success elsewhere.
Courtney Buzzerio transferred from Iowa to Pittsburgh, where she earned first-team all-ACC honors. Hannah Clayton transferred from Iowa to Purdue and, like Buzzerio, is playing on a team that will compete in the NCAA tournament this weekend.
"We downgraded in talent overall,” Barnes said. “We were able to win more (than the 2021 team) with less talent. Again, that doesn’t show on any scoreboard. But we know it, and the players know it.”
Barnes sees the transfer portal as a temporary fix, not a permanent solution, for building a program. He actually is not a fan of the portal in many circumstances.
“Normally I would say I don’t like it at all because I think it gives a kid an easy road to greener pastures that they think exists,” Barnes said. “Most of those kids don’t get the result they were thinking.”
But elevating a program that has not had an above-.500 finish in the Big Ten since the Clinton administration does not quite classify as normal circumstances.
“Right now it helps us to get an infusion of talent we need right away to get better,” Barnes said. “But overall, I would not want that as a daily thing.”
What Barnes is trying to do in the Big Ten, the most competitive volleyball conference in the country, is no small feat. Others have tried to revitalize the program and were unsuccessful.
Iowa hired Sharon Dingman in 2008. Her Big Ten record peaked in her first season, when Iowa went 6-14.
Bond Shymansky next took on the challenge of rebuilding Iowa after elevating a Marquette program that had never reached the NCAA Championships to the national tournaments in three consecutive seasons and winning a Big East title.
Shymansky’s Iowa teams peaked at a 9-11 record in Big Ten play, and Iowa fired him after he paid for a player’s rent — an NCAA violation at the time that would now be avoidable with a name, image and likeness deal from a booster.
Then Shymansky’s associate head coach, Vicki Brown, took over as head coach and had a 9-43 record in Big Ten matches before her midseason dismissal in 2021.
Brown was at the helm for two-and-a-half years, including the year affected by COVID-19 — the shortest stint for an Iowa volleyball head coach since 1990. It likely did not help that she was taking over a program on NCAA probation.
Iowa’s athletics department leadership gave a vote of confidence in Barnes with a seven-year contract. Barnes is well aware, though, he cannot be “kicking my feet up.”
“If we don’t do the job, we’re not going to be here for seven years,” Barnes said. “If we don’t show improvement, if we don’t get better, we won’t be here.”
The winning points from Barnes’ practices also can be a metaphor for the offseason. After Iowa’s 4-16 Big Ten finish, Barnes is the one needing to take extra laps on the recruiting trail now.
“We get better athletes, not the blue-chippers yet,” Barnes said aspirationally. “But we get better ones that can get us in that middle pile, and then we’re having a lot of fans, and we’re upsetting some of the top (programs). Now, I’m going to snare some of the blue-chippers.”