An early arrival has given Bailey Ortega a significant opportunity at the beginning of a late-starting Iowa volleyball season.
Coach Vicki Brown said the freshman setter from Davenport North has benefited from her decision to graduate early from high school a year ago and join teammate Leanne Lowery in enrolling at Iowa for the spring semester in 2020.
"As short as that time was before everything was halted, it definitely gave them a head start with the team," Brown said Tuesday during the Hawkeyes’ preseason media day.
"Bailey has stepped into a role where she will be running our offense, and we’re excited for what she’s going to do and the strides that she’s made with the team thus far."
While the COVID-19 pandemic halted the majority of the Hawkeyes’ work last spring and shifted the team’s fall schedule to a 22-game conference-only slate that begins Friday, Brown senses that a young Iowa team is coming together.
The Hawkeyes were able to practice in the fall, and Brown said that has helped a team which includes 11 freshmen and sophomores on its 15-player roster prepare to compete in a talent-rich conference with six teams ranked in the top 25 nationally.
"Our team is on the younger side, but we have done a lot of work," Brown said. "The adversity of the past year has matured us and grown our team culture and solidified our base. We have positioned ourselves to take things to the next level."
The first opportunity to do that begins Friday and Saturday when Iowa hosts Illinois on back-to-back days at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a season-long scheduling twist because of the coronavirus.
The Hawkeyes will then shift home games to the recently opened Xtream Arena in Coralville beginning with matches on Feb. 5-6 against Indiana.
Rutgers, top-ranked Wisconsin, fifth-ranked Nebraska and Michigan State are scheduled to visit Iowa later in the regular season that runs through April 3.
Although crowds will be limited to immediate family members of participants this season, the Hawkeyes expect the 5,100-seat arena to provide Iowa with more of a home-court edge over time.
The team will practice there at least twice each week before home matches and did work out there in the fall, getting used to the lighting and air flow in the newly opened venue.
"It will definitely create a better atmosphere for our program and for volleyball in general," Iowa outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio said.
"I think the noise will be big and having a place to really just call our own will be really important. It’s our place and our home and now, we can work to defend home court."
Iowa finished 10-21 a year ago, including 4-16 in the Big Ten Conference race, and Brown said she wants the Hawkeyes’ middle blockers, a group that includes sophomore Grace Tubbs of Clinton, to become more productive from a statistical standpoint in Iowa’s attack.
Hannah Clayton, Iowa’s top returning blocker, said that has been a focus in recent months.
"We have been breaking that down a lot," Clayton said. "It’s been a grind for sure, really honing down that aspect of our game, but that is definitely something that can help us."
As the Hawkeyes prepare to face outside competition for the first time in nearly 14 months, Brown has had her team simulate matches and the Hawkeyes have even worn game jerseys a couple of times to prepare for a return to action.
"Finally, we are here," Brown said. "We are counting down the days to compete against Illinois, and it’s been a long time coming. It will be good not to have to reference 2019 anymore."