Iowa volleyball relying on new faces to fill holes left by senior opt-outs

Seniors Brie Orr, Halle Johnston, and Griere Hughes all chose to opt out of the 2021 season once it was postponed to the spring.


Grace Smith

Kyndra Hansen spikes the ball toward Illinois during the volleyball match between Illinois and Iowa on Saturday Jan 23, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Illinois beat the Hawkeyes 3:1.

Will Fineman, Sports Reporter

The Iowa volleyball team had a very young roster during the 2019 season, boasting just two seniors – neither of which saw much time on the floor.

This season looked like it would be a different story, as seniors Brie Orr, Halle Johnston, and Griere Hughes were poised to lead the Hawkeyes with experience and playmaking ability. All three, however, chose to opt out once the season was postponed to the spring.

“The season got postponed in August, and I had a meeting with the three seniors because I saw that this year is just a different outlook for a senior,” head coach Vicki Brown said. “Their decision-making due to [COVID-19] and things like that…  it was more of a conversation of understanding that there is so much that is going on during [the pandemic] and trying to make those decisions of what to do the next few months of the academic year look like in preparation for the next step for them.”

Brown also noted that, after her meeting with the seniors, each of them came to her individually with their decisions to opt out of the 2020-21 spring season.

Excluding the 10 matches she missed with a concussion in 2019-20, Orr had played in every contest the Hawkeyes had participated in since she was a freshman.

Orr became a full-time starter at Iowa as a sophomore, and she currently ranks fifth in program history in career assists.

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Freshman Bailey Ortega and junior Courtney Buzzerio have been filling the void Orr’s absence has left the Hawkeyes at setter.

Ortega had 19 assists in her college debut against Illinois on Friday and 20 assists in the second leg of Iowa’s weekend double-header with the Illini.

“I have always looked up to Brie Orr and just having those few months with her to learn from her really helped me,” Ortega said. “I think when they opted out it was more of a ‘who can I look up to to step up,’ and when it opened up for me I thought it was great.”

Johnston started every match as Iowa’s libero last season, and her 517 digs and 4.58 digs per set ranked second in the Big Ten.

Sophomore Joslyn Boyer started at libero in Iowa’s first two matches of the season.

With Boyer moved to libero and Johnston out for the season, junior defensive specialist Maddie Slagle has seen more time in the Hawkeyes’ backcourt.

“Personally, I have tried to just encourage [the younger players] to do the best that they can and help lead the team,” Slagle said.

Hughes was not an everyday starter for the Hawkeyes at outside hitter last season. But, that didn’t stop her from reliably producing double-digit kills for Iowa on game days.

Without Hughes, sophomore Kyndra Hansen and freshman Audrey Black have helped bridge Iowa’s gaps at outside hitter.

Though the Hawkeyes are a youthful team again in 2020-21, they do not feel as inexperienced as they were in 2019-20.

“Being young, the excitement will get you through maybe the first 12 points, but then that middle is about the true grind and it gets ugly in the middle of a set,” Brown said. “Going at 20, that’s where your experience kicks in, and even though we were young last year, we did have a lot of players get that experience in the conference.”

Iowa will travel to West Lafayette, Indiana, this weekend for a two-day doubleheader against Purdue.