ISU volleyball finds team identity, claims first three victories


Sam Greene/Iowa State Daily

Freshman outside hitter and middle blocker Alexis Conaway jumps, ready to crush the ball over the net during a set against Northern Illinois in the Iowa State Challenge on Sept. 6. The Cyclones defeated the Huskies in three straight sets.

Max Dible

The ISU volleyball team, which is 3-2 overall and 0-0 in the Big 12, struggled mightily in its first two matches of the year, losing handily to Stanford and Florida State. Unable to claim even one set on their opening weekend, the Cyclones bounced back in the Iowa State Challenge to win nine straight sets through three matches.

Head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said that the turnaround was due mostly to continuity on a team that has spent the first two weeks of the season searching for its on-the-court identity.

“We feel more comfortable. We were able to get into a better rhythm this week and [we] got some offense going and some combinations going,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We just feel more in rhythm and in a better groove.”

A big part of finding that rhythm has to do with the acclimation of freshman Alexis Conaway to her position at middle blocker.

“Every game you get more and more confident,” Conaway said. “Coming into the season, we have had girls who never played together, so it just takes time … to gain that trust and confidence.”

Along with her confidence, Conaway’s blocking statistics also skyrocketed throughout the weekend as she accounted for two solo blocks and 10 block assists in the final two matches of the tournament.

“Blocking is a big role of mine on this team, so that is one thing I have been focusing on a lot in practice,” Conaway said. “Tonight was a good showing, working on timing and closing, so [it is] a step in the right direction.”

The Cyclones tallied a total of 19 blocks in their final two matches of the weekend against Tennessee and Northern Illinois, something Johnson-Lynch identified as a key to Iowa State’s success.

Conaway’s increased production as a blocker, combined with the contribution of two solo blocks and five block assists from senior Victoria Hurtt, supplemented what Johnson-Lynch said has been a goal for her team in the past few seasons.

“I think the last two matches have shown our potential as a blocking team. I think we could be an elite blocking team,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I have thought for the last few years that we have had the size to be a great blocking team … so I was excited about that because that is what I have been waiting for.”

Another factor that contributed to Iowa State’s cornerstone of continuity came from the coaching staff, which has found a handle on how to utilize a deep bench optimally and has developed well-defined roles for most of the players on the team five matches into the season.

“I think we found kind of the right mix, but we are going to continue to work with that,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We have a lot of depth. It is pretty cool that we have a lot of people on the bench who could be starters on just about any other team in the country. We will continue to experiment but … we are getting closer.”

The final piece of continuity came to the Cyclones simply by competing on three consecutive days, the rigors of which helped the team build and grow together through shared adversity and fatigue.

That adversity and fatigue were most evident in the second set against Northern Illinois on Sept. 6, Iowa State’s final match of the weekend.

Northern Illinois jumped to an early lead and kept the set close throughout, although Iowa State ultimately prevailed 25-23 in its closest set of the season.

“It is a very good test,” said junior Mackenzie Bigbee. “Tonight showed pretty well in that second set [that] we really pulled through mentally. Once you get that mentality right, the physical stuff just comes along after it.”

Johnson-Lynch said that the nature of winning and losing can have differing effects and because of that, her gauge is based more on improvement than anything else — something she saw a considerable amount of in the course of the tournament.

“You can play great and lose and still have doubt. You can play bad and win and feel better about it. That is just the way winning and losing is,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I am [really] pleased with the weekend. I thought we got better from [Sept. 4 to 5 to 6]. We played better as the tournament wore on.”