Familiar places, faces await Cyclones in Minneapolis

Libero Ashley Mass digs while playing against Nebraska on Dec. 11, 2009, at the Qwest Center in Nebraska. Iowa State lost three straight sets to Nebraska.

File photo: Iowa State Daily

Libero Ashley Mass digs while playing against Nebraska on Dec. 11, 2009, at the Qwest Center in Nebraska. Iowa State lost three straight sets to Nebraska.

Travis Cordes

For those who were around in 2008, the upcoming NCAA Tournament weekend may provide a sense of deja vu for some members of the ISU volleyball program.

Two seasons ago the Cyclones were sent to Minneapolis for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll return to the Sports Pavilion on the Minnesota campus once again this weekend.

But the similarities don’t end there.

Awaiting Iowa State are the Creighton Bluejays (20-11) of the Missouri Valley Conference, the same league that includes Northern Iowa, the team Iowa State faced in the opening round in 2008.

Just as they were two years ago, the host Gophers are again the No. 10 seed in the tournament and will again play North Dakota State in the first round.

“Most of this team was there that year,” said senior libero Ashley Mass. “So out of all the places we could have gone, Minnesota is a good spot for us.”

It’s comforting to both coaches and players that the team will once again stay close to home and play in an arena familiar to a good majority of the team. In each of coach Christy Johnson-Lynch’s five trips to the NCAA Tournament, it has never taken more than a five-hour bus ride to get to the first two rounds.

Aside from staying in Ames for the tournament last season, the Cyclones took two opening round trips to Madison, Wisc., in 2006 and 2007 and look forward to being close to home in Twin Cities once again.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing up at Minnesota,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We’ve played up there a few times both in the fall and the spring and it’s a great venue with a great crowd of educated people. It’s just a great gym to play volleyball, and we have very good feelings about playing up there.”

The Sports Pavilion was extremely kind to the Cyclones in 2008, when they took down Northern Iowa and Minnesota in their home arena to reach the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. It was especially generous to senior outside hitter Victoria Henson, who had 25 kills in each of the two matches and was named the AVCA National Player of the Week as a sophomore.

Sophomores Alison Landwehr and Jamie Straube will be the only starters that were not a part of the team 2008, giving Iowa State a good amount of experience and knowledge on what it takes to win tough tournament matches.

“We have a pretty veteran group but we’ve also got players that haven’t had a lot of NCAA experience that are going to be on the court,” Johnson-Lynch said. “They know we need to be mentally tough, we have to handle those critical points and we have to be aggressive.”

Members of the program are also even noticing parallels dating back to the regular seasons of both the 2008 and 2010 teams.

Each squad hit rough patches throughout the season and suffered unexpected losses during conference play. But the mediocre 11-9 record posted in Big 12 matches by the 2008 team is most often overshadowed, as its lasting legacy was the program’s first-ever Elite Eight appearance.

“We had a couple of slumps that year but we peaked at just the right time,” Mass said. “Just like that year I think we’re on the rise right now. I think we’ve looked the best we have in awhile, and you love to see that going into the tournament.”¬†

Despite the loss in last weekend’s regular season finale against No. 6 Texas, the Cyclones are winners in three of their last four after dropping three of four matches prior.

During the final stretch of the season, the players have been noticing a significant upswing in everything from the mental aspect to the recent increase in offensive rhythm.

“Our mentality has been the biggest difference over the last few weeks,” said sophomore setter Alison Landwehr, who will see her first NCAA Tournament action Friday. “We’re much more focused and ready to go knowing that we’re preparing for the tournament. Everyone is excited to have a fresh start and to be playing for something bigger now.”

Johnson-Lynch’s fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament begins Friday, with a 4:30 p.m. first serve between Iowa State and Creighton.