IOWA CITY — Much like the Iowa softball team she is part of, this has been a season filled with transition for DoniRae Mayhew.
Settling in at first base for the Hawkeyes as they prepare Thursday’s 10 a.m. Big Ten tourney opener against Wisconsin, Mayhew has been learning throughout each of the 50 games she has played for first-year coach Renee Gillispie’s team.
The junior from Bettendorf, named the national junior college player of the year in 2018 as a sophomore at Kirkwood Community College, carries a .264 batting average with eight doubles and five home runs into the Big Ten tourney being hosted by Indiana.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster this year, some ups, some downs,’’ Mayhew said. “The pitching at this level has been a challenge, which I expected, but I just continue to work at it.’’
Like the Hawkeyes, Mayhew has seen things from an offensive and defensive perspective come together late in the season.
Four late-season wins helped Iowa secure the 12th and final seed for the Big Ten tourney, the same spot the Hawkeyes held a year ago when they knocked off fifth-seeded Ohio State in the opening round.
“We have nothing to lose now. We can just relax and play the game,’’ Mayhew said.
That perspective has helped Mayhew compete after shuffling back and forth between pitching and taking the field at first for Iowa early in the season.
“I’m focused on my hitting and playing first and making the most of that and being ready to pitch whenever I’m needed,’’ Mayhew said. “It’s been a different year, but I’m working to keep the positivity and go out and compete every chance I get.’’
The emergence of Sarah Lehman, a sophomore pitcher from Iowa City Regina who a year ago was playing volleyball at Coe College, has provided Iowa with another arm to complement the work of junior Allison Doocy.
“Sarah has worked hard and over the last three weeks and really competed and you can see the confidence she now has,’’ Gillispie said. “We feel good about where our pitching is at heading into the tourney.’’
Iowa extended its 19-31 season, including its 5-18 finish in the Big Ten, by winning the first game of a three-game series against Ohio State last weekend while the two teams that finished below the Hawkeyes in the standings, Maryland and Michigan State, continued to struggle.
While the record and conference finish aren’t what Gillispie envisions — the former Central Florida coach expects the Hawkeyes to strive to be a top-five seed in the league tourney annually — she appreciates the late-season growth her team has shown since opening league play 1-10.
“We’re making strides and that is what we’ve hoped for,’’ Gillispie said.
But, it never happens quickly enough.
“We knew what we were getting into, and we knew we had a roster filled with players who want to represent Iowa and are proud of being Hawkeyes,’’ Gillispie said.
“We’ve underwent a culture change and right now, we have a team that wants to play the right way, wants to fight together. … These last seven games or so, we’re doing things the way we expect. We’re making progress and that’s giving us a chance.’’
Mayhew senses that as well, both from the team and in her own game.
“It’s getting the little things down, getting those things right, and we’re all doing better with that,’’ she said.