Stuve: A high-quality attack and an experienced lineup could make Iowa State volleyball a very tough team to beat in 2020

Candelaria Herrera with a couple Iowa State volleyball players versus Kansas on Oct. 2, 2019.

Sam Stuve

After getting back in the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Iowa State volleyball team’s 2019 season should be considered a success as it made the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in Iowa State Head Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch’s 15 seasons as head coach.

However, more success appears to be ahead for the Cyclones in the 2020 season if COVID-19 doesn’t cause the season to be canceled.

The Iowa State volleyball team has the potential to improve significantly in the 2020 season as it only loses one player, outside hitter Josie Herbst (who scored the fourth-most points on the team with 278.5 in 2019), who has graduated.

With only one player gone from last season’s team, Iowa State should be expected to improve upon its 17-12 (8-8 Big 12) record from the 2019 season and its fifth place finish (out of nine) in the Big 12.

While the season was a success because they made it to the NCAA Tournament, the 2019 season also saw Iowa State finish the season with less than 18 wins for the season and less than nine wins in Big 12 play for the first time since 2005, Johnson-Lynch’s first season as head coach.

The Cyclones lost eight conference matches a season ago, but five of those could’ve easily gone the other way. The Cyclones lost five conference matches last season where they won at least one set but dropped two sets by five points or less to the other Big 12 foe.

If one set in those five matches goes the other way, either the Cyclones would’ve won the match or forced more sets where they could’ve won and taken the match later on. 

Having a younger team might’ve been one of the reasons the Cyclones dropped those close sets.

Last season, nearly half of Iowa State’s roster was freshmen (8 out of 17 players) and 11 out of their 17 players were underclassmen (freshmen or sophomores).

The two young players who had the biggest impact last year were outside hitter Annie Hatch and Michal Schuler, who switched from outside hitter to libero.

Hatch made the All-Big 12 Rookie Team in 2019. She played in all 29 of Iowa State’s matches (starting in 17 of them) and scored the second-most points and hit the second-most kills on Iowa State with 308 points and 280 kills, behind now-junior right-side player Eleanor Holthaus, who scored 361.5 points and hit 308 kills.

“She was tremendous for us last season,” Johnson-Lynch said during the Virtual Cyclone Tailgate Tour. “She has a huge arm and is a terminator.” 

Schuler started 17 matches at libero and 10 at defensive specialist/outside hitter. She finished second on the team in digs with 279 behind now-senior libero Izzy Enna, who had 343 (fifth-most in the Big 12).

“She does it all,” Johnson-Lynch said of Schuler. “All signs are that she’ll be a great player.”

Hatch and Schuler are likely going to be the leading producers in 2020 among the younger players at Iowa State.

Heading into the 2020 season, Iowa State projects as one of the better teams in the Big 12 offensively as multiple players finished in the top ten in the Big 12 in offensive statistics.

Holthaus finished seventh in the Big 12 in individual kills per set with 3.18 and sixth in total points with 361.5

Senior middle blocker Candelaria Herrera, who would be playing in the 2020 Summer Olympics in two months for the Argentina women’s national volleyball team had the event not been pushed back a year because of COVID-19, finished sixth in the Big 12 in hitting percentage at .314. 

Senior setter Piper Mauck finished fourth in the Big 12 with 10.27 assists per set and led Iowa State in assists with 996.

As a team, Iowa State finished as one of the best in the Big 12 offensively, hitting .237, which was third-best behind the Baylor Lady Bears, who hit .291 and the Texas Longhorns, who hit .325. 

“In volleyball, it is so much about offense, you have to have big arms that can go up and get kills,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We don’t have a lot of holes and we have depth.”

With more experienced young players and highly productive upperclassmen, improvement in the win column by four to six wins could very well happen.

Although they have a lot of talent coming back, finishing in the top three in the Big 12 won’t be easy.

Baylor and Texas were listed in the NCAA’s way-too-early top 10 rankings and are likely going to finish as the top two teams in the Big 12.

Oklahoma and Texas Tech (who Iowa State had a 1-3 record against in 2019) could both be as tough to beat in 2020 as they were a year ago.

However, the Cyclones mix of young talent (that have more experience) and upperclassmen who have been some of the most productive players in the Big 12 could get them to finish third in the Big 12, get them to 20 regular season wins or more for only the second time in seven years (last time was in 2017).