By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Iowa women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder used Whiffle ball as a motivating tool when her young Hawkeyes were struggling with a 1-6 Big 10 record (8-10 overall).
Iowa (19-13) starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. The two seniors on the roster played exactly two minutes combined all year. JoAnn Hamlin missed the season after having a blood clot removed from her right leg and Danni Huss joined the team late as a walk-on.
We were 1-6 in January and we were wavering, but we stayed positive," junior Kachine Alexander said. "The coaches took different approaches, maybe some things they've never done before, and now we're here."
Enter Whiffle ball.
"We'd rather inspire through positive motivation and we just tried to create some fun," Bluder said. "It's a young team and a long season and we needed to make it fun. We didn't want them dreading coming to practice. So we started playing games at the end of every practice. It could be anything, a Whiffle ball game, or dodge ball. We wanted to end practice with the kids thinking this is fun."
It obviously worked as No. 8 seed Iowa won 11 of its final 14 games to earn an at-large bid into the tournament. The Hawkeyes had a 16-point lead against Ohio State in the conference championship before falling, 66-64.
"We want to get back on the court and redeem ourselves for that loss," sophomore Kamille Wahlin said. "We want to play again. Just coming to California is good experience for a young team and to understand what the NCAA is all about. This will create a hunger for next season. We want to do as well as we can this year, and whatever we do, we want to do better next year."
Rutgers' coach C. Vivian Stringer still holds Iowa in high regard after spending 12 years coaching there.
"I still have a great love for Iowa," she said. "That's where my children were raised. It's like playing your cousin or sister."
Bluder is reminded of Stringer's influence on a daily basis.
"We have a great admiration for coach Stringer," Bluder said. "We have a wall in our locker room which features all the great coaches and players in Iowa history and there's a life-size portrait of coach Stringer. I was tempted to cover it up this week, but I didn't."
Stringer said playing at Maples Pavilion is like attending a family reunion. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer previously coached at Ohio State when Stringer was at Iowa.
"Tara, coach Bluder and I were standing in the hallway together," Stringer said. "It's interesting that we're playing each other. What is the probability of that? This is the 25th anniversary of the largest crowd to ever watch a women's basketball game when I was at Iowa and we played Ohio State when Tara was there."
VanDerveer said she can still remember the milestone contest.
"It was a historic experience, with the 22,000," she said. "It's fun to reminisce a little bit. I can't believe it's been 25 years."
Stringer also coached at Iowa while Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby was in the same position with the Hawkeyes.
"We used to stand next to each other watching our kids play soccer together," Stringer said. "Iowa was not just a stop, it was never a stopover."
Scarlett Knights' Nikki Speed is from Pasadena and as soon as she heard where the team was headed, she began asking teammates for their allotment of tickets.
Rutgers' freshman Monique Oliver, who attended Long Beach Poly, originally committed to USC but changed her mind after the Women of Troy underwent their coaching change.
UC Riverside senior Marissa Rivera has a connection with Stanford in the form of former Cardinal All-American Candice Wiggins.
Rivera, a sixth-year senior, was a teammate of Wiggins at La Jolla Country Day School in the San Diego area. She considers Wiggins her best friend and lists Wiggins as her favorite athlete.
"I talked to her two days ago while she was in Greece," Rivera said. "She's very happy for our team and I. She told me to go right at them and not be afraid."
Wiggins, of course, played in the national championship game two years ago and was on the Stanford team that handed Connecticut its last loss; in the 2008 national semifinals.