Winless Iowa turns focus to individual growth

Sarah Mitchell

Although the Big Ten has been dubbed the strongest volleyball conference in the nation, going winless in league play more than halfway through the season can be embarrassing.
In her first season as Hawkeyes coach, Rita Crockett is still searching for the exhilarating feeling that accompanies a tally in the conference win column. By losing 0-3 to the Gophers on Saturday, Iowa (6-15 overall, 0-12) dropped its 22nd consecutive Big Ten match.
“This year we are concentrating more on ourselves,” Crockett said. “You can’t really work too much on your opposition when your opposition is basically yourself.”
During practice, Crockett said the team looks like a contender for the national title. But when game one of each match begins, Iowa fails to live up to its practice-tested reputation.
Crockett, who was a member of the United States National Team from 1978-84, said losing doesn’t necessarily mean the team has failed. It’s the way the Hawkeyes achieved their winless record that upsets her.
“If we are performing to our maximum ability then I’m fine with that; that just shows the other team is better,” Crockett said. “I’m frustrated because of the way we go out on the court.”
Gophers coach Mike Hebert has experienced Crockett’s frustrations before. Known for rebuilding programs, Hebert has transformed meek teams such as Illinois and Minnesota into perennial threats. He said Iowa must practice patience more than anything.
“It’s not like trying to rebuild a program in a conference with some weaker teams,” Hebert said. “Everybody that plays in the Big Ten has a great coach, great players and a big budget. You don’t just start out and blow people out. It takes awhile.”
As the winless season drags on, Crockett has stopped looking for excuses to explain Iowa’s struggles. Instead, she’s looking for individual improvement.
Since teaching the Hawkeyes a new system in August, the rookie coach has seen encouraging signs from several players. Junior outside hitter Julie Williams, sophomore middle/outside hitter Katie Panhorst and freshman middle hitter Sara Meyermann remind Crockett why she accepted the challenging job.
“After a while you start wondering, `Are you a good coach or are you not?'” Crockett said. “But then when you see the individual really step up a whole level of their game, then you know that, ‘Okay, I have done my job.'”
By strengthening her nucleus of Williams, Panhorst and Meyermann, Crockett is predicting a turnaround. Crockett said all she needs to be successful is solid recruiting and continual growth from each player.
Iowa’s roster is composed of three seniors, four juniors, five sophomores and one freshman. The veteran players have grown accustomed to defeat and so Crockett faces the battle of changing that mind-set.
“I guess you could say everybody is a freshman on our team,” Crockett said, “because everything they are learning is so new.”