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Making a Splash: Northern Iowa’s Taylor Hogan Is a Champion in Two Sports

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A quick dip in the pool might sound like the perfect way to unwind after a long weekend on the softball diamond, a pleasant opportunity to splash around and decompress. It’s a little less relaxing with judges measuring those splashes—and when there is a championship on the line. 

For Northern Iowa’s Taylor Hogan, it’s also all part of the normal routine this time of year. This past weekend, the All-Missouri Valley second baseman and her teammates opened their softball season with five games inside the UNI-Dome. This coming weekend, Hogan will leave the cleats behind and defend her conference title in the 3-meter springboard, as well as compete in the 1-meter event, during the Missouri Valley Conference Swimming and Diving Championships in Iowa City. 

Even by the standards of the relatively small club of Division I two-sport athletes, hers is a unique niche. She isn’t merely able to play two sports whose seasons briefly overlap, but achieve excellence in both. And in an age of increasing scrutiny on the rising tide of youth sports specialization, the senior is also the embodiment of a path less taken. A great many could benefit from her example, even if few have the skills or stamina to follow precisely in her footsteps. 

“I was never a person to do one thing,” Hogan said. “I think if I would have done that, I wouldn’t like the sport that I was in. That’s why I really liked the changing of seasons. … I didn’t spend a lot of time, during the offseason, with the sports I wasn’t playing. I think that’s what has helped me and kept me motivated—changing things up, keeping things fresh and finding new ways to find love for the sport that I’m in.”

Hogan went 4-for-12 with four walks in UNI’s opening weekend this season (Photo courtesy UNI).

While her current activities might suggest someone too stubborn to make a choice, Hogan actually cut her athletic portfolio in half by choosing just two sports at Northern Iowa. Growing up in Waterloo, just a few miles away from Northern Iowa’s campus in adjacent Cedar Falls, she played softball and competed in gymnastics for almost as long as she was ambulatory (her older sister, Sydney, competed in gymnastics at the University of Iowa). She also played enough tennis growing up that when she joined the high school team, she helped Columbus Catholic win a state championship and played No. 2 singles in the finals. 

She found her way to diving only because the rest of her overloaded schedule didn’t keep her busy enough. In Iowa, high school softball remains a summer sport. Tennis kept her occupied in the spring, and gymnastics, while active year round, was busiest in the winter. When she was a sophomore at Columbus, she decided she needed something to do in the fall. A friend from gymnastics tried diving, and Hogan tagged along. You might say it went well—she was a two-time all-state honoree in three prep diving seasons. 

By the time it came to commit to a college, she felt she had gone as far as she could in gymnastics but still loved softball with all the vigor of her younger years. Northern Iowa coach Ryan Jacobs built a perennial mid-major power by knowing his backyard—like Hogan, players such as former All-American Sammy Bunch, current ace Kailyn Packard and back-to-back MVC Freshman of the Year honorees Emmy Wells and Mya Dodge all hail from within 300 miles of Cedar Falls. Hogan might not have had glittering travel ball credentials, but Jacobs knew she could play. 

If not for a twist of fate, that might have been the only sport she played at UNI. But the year before she arrived, the school hired Bethany Hovland as its diving coach. Hovland also happened to have coached Hogan as the latter learned the sport. When she approached Jacobs about letting Hogan try and make both sports work, the softball coach didn’t object.

The result? A year ago, after winning the conference title and MVC Diver of the Year honors and competing in the NCAA Championships, Hogan hit .325 with a .951 OPS, accumulated a team-high 10 doubles among 16 extra-base hits, stole seven bases and earned all-conference honors for a group that set a program record with 22 conference wins. 

Hogan could be great in two sports because from her earliest gymnastics club coach to UNI’s Jacobs and Hovland, no one ever told her she needed to focus on one if she wanted to make it in any of them. These days, that’s worth celebrating. 

In a 2017 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers surveyed 3,900 high school, collegiate and professional athletes and found that a majority of the collegiate athletes had narrowed their focus to specialize in a single sport during childhood or adolescence. That runs counter to the stated opinions of groups like the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, which urges against specialization. Numerous researchers have linked specialization at too early an age with at least the possibility of an increased risk of physical injury and mental burnout and depression. 

An Iowa native who once plucked multi-sport standout Jadyn Spencer from Waterloo, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy could just about have his pick of the specialists. He prefers the generalists, including current highly-touted freshman Abby Duchscherer, a high school basketball star in North Dakota.

“It’s an asset if they play more than one sport,” Murphy said. “There is so much overuse injuries and burnout. I’d hate to have that happen, for a kid to come and just be burned out on softball. A lot of kids will call during November or December, and they’re scared to death to ask if they can play basketball. Are you kidding? Of course. We love to see that.” 

In Hogan’s case, multiple sports are not just a luxury or an indulgence. Learning different skills helped shape her as an athlete. That she didn’t play tennis with the goal of improving her fielding on the diamond doesn’t take away from the fact that it did exactly that. 

“I don’t think I would have the abilities that I do without each and every sport,” Hogan said. “Like with tennis, that helped my footwork, my back-and-forth speed for softball. And for diving, my air awareness, my spacial orientation stems from gymnastics. If [focusing on one sport] is what people enjoy, more power to them. But I just know that with my personality, I couldn’t have done that and been as successful or still be loving what I’m doing.”

Of course, carrying that success through not just high school but also college will never be the norm. Hogan taking her devotion to that extreme requires the sort of balancing act that one might expect of a former gymnast. Some weeks, when the sports overlap, she might have to get to the batting cages on her own. Or as is the case this semester, her class schedule might necessitate that she and Hovland get in her dives separate from the rest of the team. 

This week alone, she was in the pool by 8 a.m. on Monday, barely 12 hours after stepping off the diamond following a softball doubleheader.

Hogan hit .325 wth 10 doubles, two triples, four home runs and seven steals in 2022 (Photo courtesy UNI).

A support network is critical. Her family—parents, sisters and a large extended crew—provides a cheering section at any home competition and more than a few road trips, whatever the sport. She also often has two sets of teammates in any given competition: those in the stands and those competing alongside her. During the past weekend’s softball tournament, with the swimming and diving team idle, those student-athletes cheered her on in the UNI Dome. 

It’s a similar story in the classroom, where the biology major earned conference, district and national academic honors a year ago. She’s the first to sign up for a tutor when a new semester begins. And over spring break last year, with the team in Cedar Falls between road trips, two professors even volunteered to come in and help her make up lab work she had missed while traveling.  

All of that structure is necessary to make it work. But in the end, nothing is more essential than one person’s natural competitiveness and a curiosity to see what might be possible. Not for fame that is hard to come by in the Valley. Not for fortune in sports with limited professional opportunities. Not even for NIL love (although David Seeds, you’re missing an opportunity). 

Not for any of that. But simply because someone is keeping score. 

Hogan was a contender in the 3-meter competition in last season’s MVC Championships, but she wasn’t the favorite entering the final stage of the competition. Truth be told, she didn’t feel ready to win much of anything in warmups. It was just one of those nights when everything seemed out of sync as the water rushed to meet her twisting, turning body. 

Hogan and MVC Diving Coach of the Year Hovland.

Hovland reminded her that whatever happened, good or bad, memorable or forgettable, she had six more dives left in the season. Six more dives to do with what she would. 

“I wouldn’t say I was feeling my best,” Hogan recalled, “But I got her attitude, and I was just like let’s go do this.” 

Her third dive was one that often gave her problems. This time, she nailed it. Then, she hit the next dive. As she saw her teammates and other coaches starting to gather, she realized what was within reach. Two dives later, nerves intact, she was a champion. 

“Gymnastics and diving, I do feel it to be individual,” Hogan said. “It’s all on me, really. I can’t be blaming anyone else, and all the results come back to me. That’s another thing I like about the balance of the two sports of diving and softball. I get different perspectives every day, so I go from being an individual sport, which obviously I love and I’ve done my whole life. But then I also get to go back to a team sport where we all work together.”

Indeed, less than a week later, she was back in the lineup for the softball team. In her first at-bat, she singled and came around to score. 

Because what else was she going to do?

With an eye toward a future that may include optometry school, Hogan will finally slow to a single sport when she returns for a fifth year, part of the last class granted additional eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she’ll do it on her terms, any questions about what might have been if she took a different path yielding to satisfaction with the path she walked. 

“At the end of the day, I realize that this is what has made me the person I am today,” Hogan said. “I’m super, super happy with the choices that I’ve made so far.”