Iowa soccer: From bottom-dweller to conference champion

Once an afterthought in its conference, the Iowa soccer program has put itself on the map, winning a Big Ten title in 2020-21.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa midfielder Hailey Rydberg scores a goal during a soccer game between Iowa and South Dakota on Aug. 7, 2021, at the Iowa Soccer Complex. The Hawkeyes defeated the Coyotes, 3-0.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

A public address announcer at Jeffrey Field in University Park, Pennsylvania, counted down the final seconds of the 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Tournament’s championship game on April 18 — much to the delight of Iowa women’s soccer head coach Dave DiIanni.

As the game’s 90th minute came and went, DiIanni raised his arms and screamed with excitement, and his team rushed the field. The sound of the final whistle not only signaled a 1-0 Hawkeye win over Wisconsin, but the program’s first Big Ten tournament title.

With their Big Ten tournament victory, the Hawkeyes secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.

Since the University of Iowa women’s soccer program was established in 1997, the Hawkeyes have only made the NCAA Championship on three occasions, including consecutive tournament berths in the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons.

Iowa’s success in the 2020-21 postseason didn’t cease in Happy Valley. The Hawkeyes picked up their first NCAA tournament win against Campbell, 1-0, in the first round.

Shortly after their win over the Camels, the Hawkeyes’ season ended abruptly via a 2-1 loss to third-seeded UCLA in the second round.

The 2020-21 season still proved to be the best in the history of the Hawkeye women’s soccer program.

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Now, DiIanni’s high expectations for the Hawkeyes have firmly established the winning culture that he set out to create seven years ago.

DiIanni comes to Iowa

DiIanni became the fifth head coach of the Iowa soccer program on May 17, 2014.

Former head coach Ron Rainey — who was at Iowa from 2006-13 — led the Hawkeyes to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Championship his final year. At the end of the 2013 season, however, Rainey left Iowa to become Dartmouth’s head women’s soccer coach.

DiIanni, originally from Ontario, Canada, came to Iowa fresh off his third NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer Championship. From 2003-13, DiIanni amassed a 221-18-18 record coaching the women’s soccer team at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan.

“I was very impressed with the community and the people that were here,” DiIanni said in June. “I really believed that, similar to Grand Valley State, the University of Iowa women’s soccer program had greater things ahead for them. They had a good foundation, but it needed a little bit more direction and a little bit more of a culture. So, I was very excited to be the one chosen to do that.”

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Dilanni inherited the best of Rainey’s roster like seniors Cloé Lacasse — who now plays professionally in Portugal — and Melanie Pickert.

The Hawkeyes finished the 2014 season in fifth place in the Big Ten regular season standings before they fell, 1-0, to Wisconsin in overtime in the Big Ten Championship Game.

DiIanni said the Hawkeyes missed out on the 2014 NCAA tournament by about one spot.

Timeline by Molly Milder/The Daily Iowan

The building years

After the 2014 season, Iowa lost nine seniors and started to struggle. Iowa finished the 2015 season tied for 12th in the Big Ten standings with a 1-9-1 conference record. The Hawkeyes went 2-9-0 in league play in 2016.

“I don’t think we had the talent necessarily needed to compete in the Big Ten,” DiIanni said. “We were going through a little bit of coaching, a player transition with regards to numbers and roster changes and talent changes … that’s often what happens when you have a coaching change. You need to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the program, and you need time to lay the foundation of who you are and what players are needed to be successful.”

DiIanni’s Hawkeyes improved marginally in 2017, going 4-5-2 in conference play.

Midfielder Isabella Blackman was a part of DiIanni’s 2016 recruiting class. After Blackman talked to DiIanni about his vision for the program, she committed to Iowa. DiIanni knew Blackman could change his program’s fortunes, but that wasn’t going to happen immediately.

“I think going home to the house, you live with your teammates, and you’re like, ‘Is this ever going to get better?’” Blackman said. “I think there were definitely times where you lost a bit of faith in the process, but I think what helped us all really stick through it was each other as teammates.”

The Hawkeyes finished 10th in the conference in 2018 at 4-5-2 — missing the eight-team Big Ten tournament.

RELATED: Iowa soccer’s freshmen making big impact in historic season

But the tide started to turn for Iowa soccer, both on and off the field, after that season. The victories started coming in the Hawkeyes’ 2019 spring season as they swept their exhibition schedule.

“[Spring 2019] was a huge momentum shift,” Blackman said. “Because we were coming off a better fall season — not the best fall season, but a better fall season. Just the momentum that spring was a real turning point. I think we all found our ‘why,’ like why we did it. We did it for one another. We did it for that feeling and winning is contagious.”

That May, the Hawkeyes took a 10-day trip through Germany, Sweden, and Denmark — defeating three European teams along the way.

As Blackman put it, shared struggles improved the Hawkeyes’ sense of cohesion. Blackman said teammates became family, and honest conversations were easier to have.

The cohesive culture Blackman and the 2016 recruiting class established helped Iowa soccer’s younger players feel more welcome when they joined the team.

When now-senior midfielder Hailey Rydberg joined DiIanni’s squad in 2018, she remembers upperclassmen making her comfortable and having role models to look up to — something Blackman didn’t have when she was a freshman two years earlier.

“I think that was really important, as it made me feel more comfortable as an underclassman, and also just as a teammate, that I can grow and become a great player like these girls,” Rydberg said.

With DiIanni’s winning culture established, the Hawkeyes were finally ready to win when it counted in the fall 2019 season.

The dream realized 

As 10 starters and 22 letterwinners returned for the 2019 season — including seniors Claire Graves, Hannah Drkulec, Natalie Winter, and Devin Burns — the Hawkeyes were optimistic that 2019 would be their breakthrough year.

Iowa won all eight of its nonconference games in 2019, including a 2-1 thriller against Iowa State and a 1-0 upset victory over then-No. 14 North Carolina State on the road.

When the regular season ended, the Hawkeyes tied a school record, winning 15 overall games. They finished conference play at 7-3-1 — fifth place in the Big Ten.

“They wanted to go out strong, and that’s exactly what they did,” Rydberg said of the 2019 senior class. “They created that family feel and created those expectations for us that we’re still looking to uphold today.”

Though they lost in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Big Ten tournament, the Hawkeyes earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship on the afternoon of Nov. 11.

When the NCAA announced that Iowa had made the tournament field, Blackman nearly jumped out of her chair screaming.

“Oh my goodness, it was such an amazing feeling,” Blackman said.

The unseeded Hawkeyes did not advance in the 2019 NCAA tournament, falling to No. 3 Kansas in the first round, 1-0.

An unbelievable season

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the Hawkeyes’ 2020-21 season to the spring. Iowa lost 15 players from 2019 — including the Hawkeyes that established the program’s winning culture.

Star defender Riley Whitaker didn’t play because of an injury, and defender Diane Senkowski was the lone senior on the Hawkeyes’ active roster.

Five freshmen played in Iowa’s season-opener against Wisconsin on Feb. 20 — two of which were starters.

In the second half of the Hawkeyes’ seventh game of the season, DiIanni benched sophomore goalkeeper Monica Wilhelm in favor of freshman Macy Enneking.

Enneking started the rest of the season, surrendering five goals in 954 minutes.

“I think, like in any sport when you make a change, sometimes the momentum changes as well,” DiIanni said. “In hockey, they change the goalkeeper, in baseball they change the pitcher, and it was interesting to see the team play a little bit better in front of Macy.”

The Hawkeyes picked up their first win of the season on March 21 against Maryland — the first game Enneking started at goalkeeper.

The Hawkeyes picked up one more victory to finish the regular season 2-8-1, 12th in the conference.

The Big Ten gave all its teams 2020-21 conference tournament berths because the season took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, the bottom-dwelling Hawkeyes drew a first-round matchup with Illinois in the Big Ten Regionals.

Iowa had lost, 3-0, to Illinois earlier in the regular season. But in the tournament, the Hawkeyes defeated the Illini, 2-0, to advance.

“After we won that first game in the tournament against Illinois, it was just an amazing feeling,” Rydberg said. “I mean, the last time we played Illinois, we left the field embarrassed, and this was just a completely different game because it just showed how much progress we, as a team, had made. And from there on, we’re like, ‘You know what, let’s just win it all like we have nothing to lose.’”

Iowa defeated Minnesota in the Big Ten Regional Final, advancing to the four-team conference championship in University Park, Pennsylvania.

The Hawkeyes’ first opponent of the conference championships was Penn State. At the time, the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 4 in the nation, and they had never lost to Iowa in Happy Valley.

That streak ended April 15, as a second-half goal from freshman Meike Ingles helped push the Hawkeyes past the Nittany Lions, 1-0.

The win moved Iowa into the conference championship game against Wisconsin.

In the 63rd minute of the title game, junior forward Jenny Cape struck the ball off her left foot on a pass from Ingles, scoring a goal between the hands of Badger goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer — a two-time Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.

The win over the Badgers completed what was eventually dubbed Iowa soccer’s "revenge tour" by Hawkeye Athletics. Iowa had lost to all four opponents it extinguished in the conference tournament during the regular season.

Rydberg said the Hawkeyes decided to play for each other in the 2020-21 spring season, culminating in a conference championship.

“At the beginning of the season, it was almost like we were missing that belief part,” Rydberg said. “The flip really didn’t switch until about mid-season, when we were like, ‘We can be good if we all believe in each other, we all play as a team, and we put in the work for each other.’ I think that truly was the turning point.”

A promising future

The Hawkeyes are returning all but one starter this fall and adding seven freshmen to their roster.

Now, as the reigning Big Ten tournament champions, the Hawkeyes have asserted themselves as one of the conference’s best teams.

The Hawkeye coaching staff — in its third season as a unit — also found its roles within the program.

DiIanni runs the team, overseeing the Hawkeyes on and off the field. Associate head coach Blair Quinn works with the goalkeeping unit. Assistant coach Katelyn Longino helps the Hawkeyes with nutrition, and volunteer assistant Drago Ceranic works with defenders and technical positioning.

The future of the Iowa soccer program lies in the newly-built Iowa Soccer Complex — which features everything the program needs. The $4 million, two-story facility features locker rooms with doors opening to the west sideline, a multi-purpose room, an athletic training room, and a media room.

Now, in his eighth season at the helm of the Hawkeye soccer program, DiIanni has created the Hawkeyes’ identity based on hard work, perseverance, and belief.

“I believe we have a great culture,” DiIanni said. “We’re filled with wonderful people who invest a lot in being the best student athlete that they can be for the women’s soccer program and we’re going to try hard every day to try and match those expectations to be successful here.”

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