The rise of ISU volleyball


Emily Hecht/Iowa State Daily

This chart shows the attendance at Hilton Coliseum for the years before and during current head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch.

Maddy Arnold

Iowa State had never taken on a No. 1 ranked opponent and won. The Cyclones had only beaten Nebraska once in school history just a few years before.

So it seemed unlikely that Iowa State could take down No. 1 Nebraska last September, but more than 3,000 fans were in attendance that afternoon to witness just that.

As the students stormed the court at Hilton Coliseum following a 3-1 Iowa State win against the top-ranked Cornhuskers, libero Kristen Hahn thought the ISU volleyball program had finally made it.

“I just have always thought since my sophomore year when we made it to the Elite Eight that we could compete with these teams,” Hahn said. “The only thing that’s different [from Iowa State] is their history. It was really huge last year when we beat Nebraska.”

After years of struggling, the ISU volleyball program had finally shown improvement under the leadership of ISU coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. She began coaching at Iowa State in 2005, and the game against her alma mater Nebraska in 2012 was her biggest win yet.

Before Johnson-Lynch arrived at Iowa State eight years ago, the program had only six wins against ranked opponents in its 32-year history. Since she was named head coach, Iowa State has had 29 wins against top-25 ranked teams including its first win against a No. 1 ranked team last season.

“When we’ve had a few of the wins at home when the fans have stormed the court…I like to go back and watch those on video and watch them again and again,” Johnson-Lynch said. “To just know where we started from — to see that does make you reflect and appreciate where you’ve been.”

As a result of her success against some of the best teams from around the country, Johnson-Lynch was able to lead her team to more postseason appearances than it had ever made before.

In those three decades before the Johnson-Lynch era, Iowa State had just one NCAA tournament appearance. In 1995, the Cyclones lost in the second round to Notre Dame and finished with a 22-12 record.

If Johnson-Lynch wanted to turn the program around, she would have a challenge in front of her. Iowa State had always struggled to win, especially in the years leading up to her hiring.

During a four-year period under the previous two head coaches, Iowa State had only 12 wins. In the season just before Johnson-Lynch arrived, Iowa State managed eight wins.

“Some people thought I was a little crazy. Some people thought it was a great move,” Johnson-Lynch said of her accepting the job at Iowa State.  “Crazy in that if we didn’t end up successful it could backtrack my career a little bit. I think a lot of people recognized that this could be a good volleyball school. Sometimes there’s less pressure in stepping into a program that hasn’t been good.

“I really felt like we could only go up from where we were.”

And the ISU volleyball team did just that.

When Johnson-Lynch took over, she doubled the number of wins from the previous year from eight to 16. That season, Iowa State narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament.

Every year since then, Johnson-Lynch has led the Cyclones to the tournament. Iowa State has made seven-straight appearances, including two Elite Eight and three Sweet 16 finishes.

But Johnson-Lynch’s success was not just limited to wins. During her years at Iowa State, she has had players named as All-Americans 11 different times.

Also under Johnson-Lynch, Iowa State saw its first ever top-25 ranking when it was ranked No. 18 in 2007. Since the 2008 season, the Cyclones have been ranked for 66 consecutive weeks and have been as high as No. 5.

As a result of the improvement Iowa State has shown, the popularity of the ISU volleyball program has grown dramatically.

Between Johnson-Lynch’s first and second seasons at Iowa State, average home attendance almost doubled. Nine of Iowa State’s top-10 most-attended matches were played during her career.

Because of its recent success, Iowa State has recently been on television more than ever. This season alone, the Cyclones have four matches scheduled to appear on TV.

“What that’s saying is we have our channel, but through the Big 12 we’re now good enough that a national distributer wants to pick up the game or games,” said ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard. “That does a lot just in the recruiting world. That’s big because there was a day not that long ago that no volleyball matches in the Big 12 were getting picked up as part of our normal television contract.

“That to me shows that we’ve created something in volleyball that’s pretty neat.”

Pollard wanted to reward the success Johnson-Lynch created in the ISU volleyball program, so last February he offered her a new long-term contract. Johnson-Lynch signed a seven-year deal that will keep her at Iowa State through the 2019 season.

Although Johnson-Lynch has already had many accomplishments in her eight years, she still has many more goals for her next seven seasons at Iowa State.

“We’ve got our list. It’s a Big 12 championship,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We haven’t done that yet. We’ve been close, but we haven’t done that yet. We have not gotten to a Final Four. We’ve been close. We want to get in the top five in national attendance.

“I think those are the three biggies for now. And then we do those and it will be something else.”