VOLLEYBALL: Cyclones face in-state rival Northern Iowa in first round

Iowa States Kaylee Manns jumps for the ball during the Cyclones game against Kansas on November 29, 2008 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones next game will be against Northern Iowa on Dec. 5. Photo: Manfred Strait/Iowa State Daily

Manfred Strait

Iowa State’s Kaylee Manns jumps for the ball during the Cyclone’s game against Kansas on November 29, 2008 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclone’s next game will be against Northern Iowa on Dec. 5. Photo: Manfred Strait/Iowa State Daily

Matt Gubbels

The ISU volleyball team was 9-7 and 1-4 in the Big 12 on Oct. 1 after a loss to Missouri.

Two months later, however, the Cyclones (19-12, 11-9 Big12) are preparing for their third straight NCAA Tournament and a first-round matchup with in-state rival Northern Iowa.

“I think we were wondering for a while there if we would even be in this position,” said coach Christy Johnson. “We are pretty excited to have come this far.”

Iowa State finished the season on a 10-5 run that included its first season sweep of Kansas State since 1995, becoming one of the four Big 12 teams in the tournament.

“It’s apparently now our thing to start playing really well at the end of the season,” said junior setter Kaylee Manns, referring to last season’s late surge. “We had a lapse there for a little bit and lost to some teams we should have beat, but now we are playing our best volleyball.”

One of the Cyclones’ early losses this season was to Northern Iowa, a four-setter on Sept. 10. Iowa State got 27 kills from Victoria Henson but struggled to slow down the Panthers, who hit .323 and outblocked the Cyclones 16-4.

Manns said the team needs to come into this matchup with a different attitude.

“I felt like when we played them we were tired from the preseason and didn’t really have a break,” Manns said. “We have to kind of look to get a little revenge.”

The Cyclones are happy to be facing their rivals from earlier this season.

“The fact that we are playing each other first round is not disappointing or even surprising,” Johnson said. “It’s great for Iowa volleyball.”

The ISU team the Panthers will see in this match is considerably different than the last time the two teams met. The Cyclones have undergone a lineup change since then, in which Rachel Hockaday moved from right-side hitter to left-side hitter and Kelsey Petersen stepped in at right-side hitter.

During the first match, Iowa State struggled with slowing down Panther outside hitter Amy Sampson and middle blocker Ashten Stelken. Johnson said part of the lineup change was to be able to slow down opposing hitters.

“When you go months between playing teams, it is a whole different ball game,” Johnson said. “For us, it’s going to be a whole different lineup out there than the first time we played them. I think we’re in a much different place this time.”

Manns said it is different playing a team the Cyclones already played this season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s nice because we get a little bit of an advantage,” she said.

The Cyclones went to the Sweet 16 for the first time last season, while in the first round the Panthers bowed out to Wisconsin, who Iowa State promptly swept one night later.

“We know what it feels like and we played up in Minnesota last spring,” Johnson said. “It is nice that we have a core group of players that have been in this situation before.”

Last season, Iowa State had a much more veteran-laden roster, whereas this season it has three freshmen in the regular rotation.

“The freshmen are much more comfortable with their roles now, and I think everyone will step up now that it’s tournament time,” senior middle blocker Jen Malcom said.