By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Entering her eighth season as the Iowa softball coach, Marla Looper wakes up every day feeling a sense of urgency.
It would be reasonable to assume that it’s caused by her struggle to restore the softball program to prominence and that Looper feels a sense of urgency to win this season.
But that apparently isn’t the case.
“Every day we wake up there’s a sense of urgency to make the most of every moment of every day, so I would say, no,” Looper said when asked if she felt a sense of urgency to win this season. “Every year we want to get out there and give our best and there’s no guarantee of an outcome. You can prepare 100 percent the best you can and there’s still no guarantee when you step on the field and you face an opponent that you’re going to win. Some days, you’re the best team, some days you’re not.
“Our challenge is every day to be the best team that we can and the outcome is the outcome. We talk process, so a sense of urgency, I think every day when someone steps on the field there is a sense of urgency to be the best they can that day.”
The Iowa softball team held its annual media day event on Thursday, and like with any media day, the mood was upbeat and the players were filled with hope and optimism.
Looper talked about her players being more aggressive and having a new mindset that emphasizes being on the attack. She also praised her players for being unselfish and for putting the team before individual goals.
“Our challenge by the end of the season is all 22 players, plus all staff and coaches are shoulder to shoulder marching forward to that ultimate goal that we all want, but there is no guarantee for it,” said Looper, whose contract expires after this season. “And I think that’s the most exciting thing. They care about the person to the left and the right.
“They want them to be better, even if that’s the person that they’re competing against for that position because they know if somebody goes down the next person is going to be ready to go. They’re going to be their biggest competitor in practice, but their biggest fan in a game. And I haven’t seen that yet since I’ve been here, and I’m really excited about that aspect.”
Iowa returns 17 letter-winners, including three pitchers, and nine players who appeared in over 30 games last season. The Hawkeyes also made the Big Ten Tournament last season for the 20th time in program history.
But on the flipside, Iowa only finished 19-32 last season, including 9-14 in the conference, which tied for ninth place.
Looper owns a 151-215-1 overall record as the Iowa softball coach and a 62-97 mark in Big Ten play since taking over before the 2011 season.
Some of her teams at Iowa have flirted with having a breakthrough season, including the 2013 squad that finished 30-24. But it has mostly been a struggle for Looper since she replaced long-time coach Gayle Blevins, who led Iowa to 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, to four Women’s College World Series appearances and to at least 40 wins in 13 of her 23 seasons as head coach.
“The energy they have been bringing day-in and day-out has been phenomenal,” Looper said of her players. “We were outside last Friday scrimmaging and I had goose bumps from the beginning to the end. And to keep that energy for a three-hour period is hard, but not with this group.
“So I’m excited to see what they’re going to put on the field, put the hay in the barn and now let’s go reap the benefits of that. And that’s our challenge every day. And the effort they put in daily, I’m anxious for them to see the rewards of it.”
The Iowa players who met with the media on Thursday showed guarded optimism, which makes sense under the circumstances.
“I think the biggest part for this year is taking our mistakes and growing from them rather than stepping backwards,” said sophomore pitcher Allison Doocy, who started 24 games last season and had a 2.80 earned-run average. “We’re not even thinking about the rankings or anything like that, just pushing forward and knowing that we can compete with any team.
“It’s always a goal to be Big Ten champions, but I’m taking it one game at a time and playing each team as it goes.”
The players talked on Tuesday about the process being more important than the destination. They hope to take the momentum from making last year’s Big Ten Tournament into this season.
“As a team, I think we have a lot of experience,” Doocy said. “We’ve been to the Big Ten Tournament and a lot of us got to see that and I think that’s going to help us this year.”
Senior Allie Wood started 50 games in centerfield last season and recorded 30 hits with seven doubles. She hopes that her experience will pay dividends this season.
“Definitely, mentally I’ve grown a lot in the past three years,” Wood said. “I think that’s just with the process of growing and becoming a student-athlete and understanding what’s expected from us and what we need to do and correlate it into our play.”
The players weren’t real specific when talking about team goals, although, senior catcher Angela Schmiederer shared one goal.
“We have a few goals,” she said. “It’s all about being process driven. It’s not really about the outcomes right now. As far as goals, we definitely want to make the Big Ten Tournament. That’s our over-arching goal and every day we’re working to get there.”
The 2018 schedule will provide a tough challenge as it includes 10 opponents who reached the 2017 NCAA Regionals. The Big Ten race also figures to be difficult.
"I think it's tougher than it's been in a while," Looper said of the Big Ten. "Michigan is always a power and Minnesota is going to have another great year with a new coaching staff. So it'll be interesting to see what happens to them. Nebraska is feeling a little bit better this year.
"Pretty much the whole western part of the conference is either receiving votes or ranked this year. But I also feel the eastern side has increased in value. I think our conference as a whole has elevated."
Marla Looper’s record at Iowa
2017 – 19-32, 9-14
2016 – 13-39, 3-20
2015 – 19-40, 9-15
2014 – 16-30-1, 9-14
2013 – 30-24, 7-15
2012 – 27-26, 16-8
2011 – 27-24, 9-11
Big Ten: 62-97