Cyclones driven by competition ahead of Iowa State Spring Tournament

Eleanor Holthaus smiles after recording a point against Stanford in the NCAA tournament on Dec. 3.

Aaron Hickman

Spring has sprung, which means more volleyball has begun.

Following a 16-12 fall season that ended with a 3-1 loss against Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Volleyball Championship, the spring will be used for making adjustments and learning more about the squad.

Picking up a 3-1 win over Omaha last weekend, Saturday’s Iowa State Spring Tournament will see the Cyclones face off against in-state rivals Drake, Iowa and Northern Iowa.

With some important players graduating and moving on, big pieces remaining in place for another run and several members of the team in the mix for important positions, the spring should provide plenty of opportunity for Head Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch to get a good look at her squad and see where things are at.

Holthaus’ return

Early in January, senior right-side hitter Eleanor Holthaus announced that she would be returning to Iowa State for a fifth season.

Coming off of a year where she averaged a career-high in kills per set and digs while being named All-Big 12 First Team, the idea that she would come back to Ames was something that Holthaus always considered to be likely. Still, the discussion was something that her and Johnson-Lynch decided would be best to put on the backburner.

“I tried to talk to all of those seniors a little bit as we went, but honestly nothing was really set until after the season,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I didn’t wanna talk about it a lot before then, because either way I think it puts a lot of pressure on someone to think ‘this is my last time, or is this gonna be my last time?’ We just tried not to really talk about it much until the end of the season.”

That was something that Holthaus appreciated. Being able to focus on the task at hand and just play with no pressure helped her put up 291 kills and lead the program back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out the year before.

Telling Johnson-Lynch at end-of-season meetings right before winter break in December and texting the team during break before she made her announcement, the opportunity to make another run with the program she loves was ultimately too much for Holthaus to pass up.

“It didn’t really take me long to figure out what I wanted to do, and it’s such an amazing opportunity,” Holthaus said. “I was just thinking to myself: ‘how could I not take it?’ This program has given so much to me and I’ve given so much back to it. I’m super grateful for another year and I’m super excited for it.”

Outside hitter Annie Hatch is happy to have Holthaus’ leadership in the fold once again, as she believes that would be the biggest gap left by the Minnesotan. For Jaden Newsome, it comes down to a level of comfortability she has with Holthaus, who is also her roommate.

That level of comfort is something Newsome hopes to build on not only with Holthaus, but with the team as a whole.

Newsome’s second year in Ames

Going into last season with a new libero and setter, who are often the first and second points of contact, there was an adjustment period. For Newsome personally, there wasn’t a lot of time to get comfortable after transferring from Missouri. That’s something that will be different this time around.

“This year, our setter is already here, although we’re bringing in another setter in Morgan Brandt,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Just having those two be here helps a ton, and even in the fall you feel like with Jaden, we didn’t really spend much time on technique. We just needed her to play. Same with Addi [Heidemann]. We couldn’t really break things down too much, we just needed to get ready to play. Now we have the spring to maybe tweak some things and get them just a little bit better at some things.”

After returning home and taking a couple of weeks off after the season-ending loss in Minneapolis, Newsome was back in the gym working.

For someone who made the All-Big 12 Second Team and put up career-highs in assists, kills and digs, the prospect of getting even better could be considered a tall task. For Newsome, though, it’s something that she believes will be easier this time around.

“I think now I’m just fine-tuning things,” Newsome said. “Last year I was getting used to the system, new people, now it’s just fine-tuning things with teammates, individually, stuff like that.”

Newsome’s roommate is used to playing with her now as well. Holthaus believes you could see the difference in the team’s speed on offense as the season progressed, and Newsome is someone she thinks the program is fortunate to have.

Whether or not Holthaus and Newsome can continue to build off of that connection is something that will play a big part in how the Cyclones’ season goes. For now, though, the two are just happy to be together one last time.

“Iowa State is super lucky to have gotten her last year,” Holthaus said. “We’re very grateful to have her for an extra year, and I’m super excited to play with her again.”

Competition at libero, middle blocker

2021 All-Big 12 First Team picks Candelaria Herrera and Marija Popovic graduated and exhausted their eligibility in the fall, and longtime Cyclone Avery Rhodes decided not to use her COVID year and come back for a fifth season. With Herrera being a unanimous pick, Rhodes being a reliable piece for four years and Popovic claiming the Big 12 Libero of the Year award, there are definitely big shoes to fill.

At libero, those shoes will be filled by someone internal this year. Redshirt freshman Paula Krzeslak, senior Kate Shannon and soon-to-be sophomores Allie Petry and Brooke Stonestreet will be competing to wear the jersey.

Krzeslak is an unknown at this point, redshirting last year after playing club volleyball in Poland. Shannon only played in two sets in the fall and had three total digs.

Petry and Stonestreet, though, were very impactful as freshman last season and should be expected to have a leg up in the competition. With Petry tallying 208 digs and Stonestreet contributing 83, the freshmen handled the pressure well when they were thrown in the fire while Popovic was out due to Big 12 Health and Safety Protocols. This led to their increased playing time later on in the season.

“I love having that competition because you feel like whoever wins it out is gonna have to be pretty good,” Johnson-Lynch said.

At middle-blocker, it will be a tall task replacing all of the things that Herrera was able to do. That’s why Johnson-Lynch is hoping to take a team approach to that problem and not put too much pressure on any one individual.

Personnel-wise, Alexis Engelbrecht is the only returning middle-blocker that played a significant amount in the fall with 77 sets. Abby Greiman is coming off of a surgery after only playing in 10 sets, but she did play in 45 sets in the 2020 season. She is expected to be fully healthy by the end of spring.

The more unknown players are incoming freshman Kelsey Perry and current junior Jordan Hopp. The latter has only played in one set in her career, and that set was back in 2020. Perry is a member of the 2022 recruiting class from Frisco, Texas, who graduated early and joined the team. Putting together a great high school career and standing at 6’4, the freshman should factor in in a conference where size is needed at the middle spot.

Overall, the starting spots are entirely up for grabs.

“It’s still wide open,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Replacing Candelaria is very difficult because she was such a great player, so experienced. I don’t know if we’re looking for somebody to replace all the things that she did, but as a team can we replace those points and what she provided? Right now we have three middles that are really going at it. I just think they all are really improving and getting a lot better”

Tournament details

The Iowa State Spring Tournament will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum, with the floor being rotated 90 degrees so two courts can be played on at the same time.

The Cyclones’ matches will be played as follows: against Drake on the east court at 10 a.m., against UNI on the east court at 11:15 a.m. and against Iowa on the east court at 1:30 p.m.

Admission is free for those that wish to attend. There will be no live video or live stats.