Few could have appreciated the moment more than Iowa senior Reghan Coyle.
On Oct. 6, her Hawkeye volleyball team upset then-No. 6 Wisconsin in five emotional sets for its first top-10 victory in more than 20 years.
When the Council Bluffs Lewis Central graduate walked on to the team three years ago, Iowa recorded a 2-18 Big Ten record in her freshman year and finished 12-21 overall for its 20th losing season in 21 years.
“That was kind of a tough year,” she said.
Under fifth-year coach Bond Shymansky, Iowa is in the midst of a volleyball renaissance. In the nation’s toughest conference, the Hawkeyes are 12-8 overall and 4-5 in league play entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. rematch at now-No. 9 Wisconsin, and have their sights set on their first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years. Iowa received two votes in the most recent AVCA Top 25 national poll.
Coyle, a 6-foot right-side hitter, has been instrumental in the Hawkeyes’ rise to prominence. She is one of three team captains, and leads the club with a .288 hitting percentage while ranking third in kills per set (2.38) and fourth in blocks per set (0.68). She shared the team lead with 14 kills in Friday’s 25-23, 25-18, 25-20 loss at No. 3 Minnesota.
“She’s been a great leader for us, both on and off the court, in so many different components,” said Shymansky, an Iowa City native. “It’s almost impossible to measure. Coming here as a walk-on. Earning her way onto the court, then earning a scholarship. Then earning a captainship. Earning good grades. Earning her team’s and her coaches’ respect. Everything you think you want to believe about kids from Iowa, she embodies all of it.”
After earning all-state honors as a junior and senior at Lewis Central, Coyle received a full-ride offer to play at South Dakota State. After agonizing, she realized she had to pursue her dream school, scholarship or not.
“I didn’t want to go through that regret of not having that big-school experience,” she said.
Shymansky doesn’t sugarcoat the life of a walk-on. For one, because it’s the truth, but also out of necessity.
“We need to know if they’re really going to go the distance,” he said. “We have to choose wisely, otherwise we’re just turning over kids every year. Actually, we did almost everything we could to scare her off in the recruiting process. I forewarned her, ‘You know, you’re probably never, ever going to play here, right? You know, you’re never going to get a scholarship. You understand that, right? Just understand that what you’re headed toward is a lot of heartache.’
“She just kind of looked at me. She’s pretty low-key. She was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I hear what you’re saying.’ Then, lo and behold, there she was at practice.”
As a freshman, the daughter of Kenny and Andrea Coyle appeared in 22 matches and started eight, quite an achievement for a walk-on. Shymansky doesn’t recall it quite so glowingly.
“I frankly can’t even remember back then what it was that made us give her a shot on the right side, other than the fact that we were playing so poorly in Big Ten,” he said. “It was kind of, ‘Well, we might as well give her a chance.’ If the team’s not doing well, let’s just spin the dial. Let’s just find out if somebody else can have an impact. She did OK.”
In the spring offseason after her freshman year, the coaches tried to give Coyle a bigger role. It backfired.
“She was playing a lot more, and she was awful,” Shymansky said. “She struggled all the time. Couldn’t perform. Everything was going wrong. That can happen in the growth process, just working so hard and can’t seem to get it right.”
About midway through her sophomore year, she got it right. She delivered consecutive career bests of 14 and then 18 kills, as the Hawkeyes beat Northwestern and No. 24 Illinois.
The overlooked girl from Council Bluffs was the Big Ten player of the week, the first such honor for an Iowa player in four years. And likely the first ever for an Iowa walk-on.
“Her numbers were unbelievable, but her impact was so noticeable,” Shymansky said. “At that point we already knew. We were like, ‘She’s never coming off the court again. She deserves to be out there.’ Really great kind of internal fortitude and self-perseverance to keep going and trust that she’s working in the right direction. She never made excuses. Never blamed anybody else for her shortcomings. She just kept working, asking how to get better, and she’s done everything we’ve asked her to and then some.”
The folks in Iowa City are starting to notice what’s been building. On Oct. 13, Iowa drew 4,058 fans to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, its third-largest crowd in school history, in a five-set loss to No. 17 Purdue. The Hawks are on track for their third straight winning season.
“I’ll be wearing my volleyball gear, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re on the volleyball team,’ ” the 21-year-old Coyle said. “Carver is a fun atmosphere, and it was really loud that night. I think if we keep doing well, more people will pay attention to us.”
Said Shymansky: “Our gals are hearing it constantly. People are really proud of what we’re doing, and proud to be Hawkeye volleyball fans now. ... There’s just a different kind of energy around, and a different belief that’s taking hold from the outside in, rather than just from the inside out.”
One thing remains for Reghan Coyle to accomplish before she moves on to her final two years of pharmacy school: a trip to the NCAA tournament.
It’s following an eerily similar path to her high school career. In her senior season at Lewis Central, the Titans advanced to the state tournament for the first time in 11 years.
“We wanted it so bad,” Coyle said that night in 2014, when L.C. beat ADM in five sets to qualify. “We’ve waited so long and we’ve worked too hard.”
“It’s just kind of surreal that I’m in that same situation again for college,” Coyle said. “Obviously the expectation is the tournament. We’re so tired of being that team that just watches other teams on TV in December.”