Malcom struggles, others pick up slack

Matt Gubbels

With their go-to hitter, middle blocker Jen Malcom, struggling mightily Wednesday against Northern Iowa, the ISU volleyball team had to find other options for kills.

The Cyclones did get that help in the form of sophomore outside hitter Victoria Henson and freshman right side hitter Rachel Hockaday but were unable to penetrate a tough Panther defense in 3-1 loss in their home opener. Henson set a career-high in kills with 27 and Hockaday had her third career double-digit match and her career-high in kills in eight matches as well with 15.

“The team was passing free balls really well, so Kaylee [Manns] was able to trick the middle blocker, who was on Jen, to go with Jen,” Henson said. “That opened up me quite a bit, so Kaylee helped me out a lot there.”

Head coach Christy Johnson said the team’s passing struggles hurt the offense in general, along with Malcom, who was drawing a lot of attention from the Panthers.

“I thought Victoria was awesome, being a terminator for us,” Johnson said. “When we did pass the ball 10 to 15 feet off the net, she still could go up and get kills and that is tremendous for her.”

Henson started off the match with a big first set in a Cyclone win, having eight kills on 12 swings. She continued that momentum in tight Cyclone losses to tie her career-high in sets two and three with five and seven kills, respectively.

She surpassed the 20 kills she had last season against the Texas Longhorns on the third point of the fourth game and finished strong with another seven kills. Henson took a whopping 43 swings on the night and hit .372 on those.

“With Jen leading the nation in hitting percentage, they were probably thinking, we have to get on her,” Henson said. “That helped us out a lot on the outside.”

Malcom ended up with 10 kills but also had six errors, which was more than half of the total of eight errors that she had for the first seven matches of the season. Malcom was leading the nation and the Big 12 in hitting percentage coming into the match at .518, but dropped below the .500 mark with her .148 mark against UNI.

“Since they were keying on Jen, it gave the outside hitter and me one-on-ones, so we were able to get kills that way,” Hockaday said. “I just don’t think we came out and matched their intensity; coach said it wasn’t just one thing we did.

“It was just a bunch of little things and everything adds up.”

Johnson said it was going to be tough to keep up the pace Malcom was on, especially facing a block like Northern Iowa’s.

“I think when someone is leading the nation in hitting percentage it is almost a jinx,” Johnson said. “When you have two huge blockers staring you in the face, it is hard to put the ball away and that is a credit to UNI. They were in front of her all night.”

Hockaday also posted a double-double in kills and digs with 11 digs in her first match in front of the Hilton Coliseum crowd.

“It is tough when a defense is really scrappy like that because it can be frustrating when you are taking as hard a swing as you can and they are getting everything up,” Hockaday said.