Iowa volleyball’s Bailey Ortega embodies walk-on mentality

The junior earned a scholarship ahead of the 2022 season and is now embracing a new role under first-year Iowa head coach Jim Barnes.


Grace Kreber

Number 12 Bailey Ortega of the Iowa volleyball team signing an Iowa volleyball poster for a fan following the Iowa vs. Purdue match at Xtreme Arena in Coralville on Sept. 25, 2022.

Kenna Roering, Sports Reporter

Hawkeye junior setter Bailey Ortega has looked up to and modeled her game after Iowa volleyball players since she was a kid.

Now in the Black and Gold herself, Ortega is inspiring others on and off the court.

The Davenport, Iowa, native was a two-time team captain and four-time all-conference honoree at Davenport North High School, but she was not highly recruited.

After several coaches told Ortega that they could not see her playing at the Division I level, she received a preferred walk-on opportunity to play for her dream school — Iowa — in the spring of 2019.

“[Being a walk-on] definitely comes with a chip on the shoulder and an underdog mentality,” Ortega said. “It’s an experience you don’t really understand unless you’re a walk-on. And I think I take a lot of pride in that, especially being from the state of Iowa.”

In the spring of 2021 as a freshman, Ortega started all but two matches and led the Hawkeyes with 387 assists. In her sophomore season, Ortega appeared in all 107 sets, registering 838 assists and 201 digs.

Ahead of her junior season in May 2022, Ortega got the news that every walk-on wants. First-year head coach Jim Barnes told Ortega she was put on scholarship for the rest of her career.

“She’s one of the most unselfish leaders I’ve ever coached,” Barnes said. “And I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Ortega’s court time has been limited at the beginning of the 2022 season, as she has only played in 20 of 45 sets so far. But at the Hawkeye Invitational at Xtreme Arena on Sept. 16-17, Iowa showcased a new 6-2 offensive alignment. This new scheme incorporates an extra hitter, which rotates Ortega in to set across the backcourt.

Related: Iowa Volleyball true freshman Nia Washington makes early impact

“She was in a role where she wasn’t playing on game day,” Barnes said. “And you couldn’t tell in practice. You couldn’t tell in travel or off the court. She was all in … And then when we moved to the 6-2 where she has a much bigger role, she didn’t change at all. She just kept being the same Bailey and kept getting better every match.”

Ortega’s infectious personality shines through whether she is playing every set or cheering on her teammates from the sidelines. She said she is happy to take over any role that her coaches see fit, as her mindset has been team-oriented from the start.

“My biggest mindset going into this is that whatever the team needs is what I’m willing to give,” Ortega said. “My coaches have been super great at talking to me about it and making sure that I know that I’m an important piece of this team … Whether I’m on or off the court, if we get the win, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s team-first, always.”

The Hawkeyes have not experienced a winning season since Ortega or any of her teammates arrived on campus. Multiple coaching changes in the last few years have signified a lack of consistent leadership for Iowa.

Now, with Barnes at the helm, Ortega and her teammates appreciate the gym as a safe space and are excited to show up to practice every day.

“Over the course of my volleyball career, even at Iowa, I have gone through times where I questioned my love for the game,” Ortega said. “And I can confidently say since our new staff has gotten here, I have yet to question if I love the game.”