Cyclones look to stay hot against in-state rivals

Matt Gubbels

In Christy Johnson’s first three seasons as the coach of the volleyball team, the Cyclones have gone 8-0 against their in-state rivals — Iowa, Northern Iowa and Drake.

Iowa State (5-2) starts their quest to make that record 11-0 on Wednesday as they take on Northern Iowa at Hilton Coliseum in their home opener.

“It is just really exciting to try to be the only class to be undefeated in the state of Iowa,” senior middle blocker Jen Malcom said. “I’m just looking forward to playing these next few games and focusing on them and getting our little state title that we usually get.”

To do that, however, the Cyclones will have to take down an undefeated Panthers (6-0) team that has only dropped one set in six matches, which was to previously ranked Clemson.

Despite losing three starters from their NCAA-qualifying team from a year ago, including their setter, the Panthers have not missed a beat early on this season. They swept their way through the Florida Atlantic Invitational, as well as their own tournament.

Johnson said the Panthers are very athletic, with players like all-Missouri Valley Conference middle blocker Ashten Stelken, and will pose some big problems for Iowa State.

“It is important that we play well against a team of that caliber,” Johnson said. “It’s important for recruiting battles and your status in the state.”

Stelken, who led the Panthers in hitting last season, has gotten off to another strong start with 66 kills on .482 hitting, which has lead UNI to a .309 hitting percentage. This could be clash of titans in the middle, with Malcom also having great numbers from her middle blocker spot.

After traveling from Wisconsin to Omaha to Tennessee, with short stops in Ames in-between, the Cyclones will finally get to spend an extended period of time in Ames, because Wednesday’s match starts a five-match homestand.

Malcom said going on the road and winning has given the team some confidence.

“Getting back home will be a nice break for us,” Malcom said. “On the road, you’re so stressed, and now we can just focus and it will be a lot better the next week-and-a-half to two weeks.”

Freshman right side hitter Rachel Hockaday said the traveling was fun but it is good to be back in Ames.

“I’ve missed a lot of class, so it’s nice to get back in the classroom and find out what I’ve missed,” Hockaday said. “It’s been a blast so far, but I am looking forward to the home games this week.”

In this long stretch, Iowa State has played against three NCAA qualifiers from last season, including 15th-ranked Middle Tennessee State, which Iowa State dropped a tight three-setter on the Blue Raiders floor.

Johnson said that match was a learning experience for her team, though.

“I would have loved to beat Middle Tennessee this weekend, but we were tested and we found out where our weaknesses are against one of the best teams in the country,” Johnson said. “We found out what does work and what doesn’t work.”