Change of plans: How Iowa State adapted to the loss of Soares


Jacob Rice

Stephanie Soares drives forward at the ISU vs. West Virginia women’s basketball game. Jan. 4, 2022.

Payne Blazevich, Sports Reporter

At the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, No. 11 Iowa State held a 5-0 lead over the seventeenth-ranked Sooners when center Stephanie Soares turned to make an off-balanced shot with 8:11 to go in the first quarter. 

Soares stumbled and tossed the ball into the air before quickly grabbing at her left knee. She sat on the court as the game came to a stop, and after an evaluation by Iowa State’s training staff, center Beatriz Jordao — who medically retired from basketball 10 days earlier — jogged off the bench to help Soares to the locker room. 

“It was arguably one of the worst days of my professional life,” head coach Bill Fennelly said. 

An MRI the following day confirmed Soares tore her ACL, cutting her season at the Division I level short. In one second, Iowa State was down one of its most important players for the year, and its approach to the entire 2022-23 season had to take a 180. 

“You go through the summer and the fall and you have a plan, and unfortunately, that plan has kind of been imploded,” Fennelly said. 

Soares was a grad-transfer player from The Master’s University, an NAIA school in Santa Clarita, California. At The Master’s, Soares was the best player in her position and one of the top players at the NAIA level. 

She was the NAIA player of the year twice and made the decision to move up to the Division I level in order to make herself marketable to professional teams. Iowa State jumped at the chance to add Soares, bringing in the size and physicality at the post that the Cyclones lacked in the 2021-22 season. 

Soares was supposed to be Iowa State’s key to an even greater level of success, but in the blink of an eye, the team’s game plan needed to change.

“I told the team no one’s gonna feel sorry for us,” Fennelly said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t care about your problems; there’s a lot of people that are happy you have problems.”

In the Oklahoma game, Iowa State threw everything at the wall hoping to quickly mend the wound of Soares’ absence. The team found some success running a few different strategies, but the Cyclones didn’t have quite enough firepower to finish off Oklahoma, losing 82-79 in Norman. 

That night, Iowa State was at a bit of a loss. But four games later, the Cyclones have found their answer. 

Iowa State’s first response was to go back to Morgan Kane, the starting center during Iowa State’s record 28-win season in 2021-22. The move saw limited success during Kane’s 11 minutes on the floor, but it would take time for her and backup Izzi Zingaro to adjust. 

Instead, Iowa State seemed to click with guard Nyamer Diew at the five position. Diew’s versatility has been a valuable asset for Iowa State all season, but in the absence of Soares, it has become a critical trait.

Nyamer Diew shoots a three-pointer against Kansas on Jan. 21, 2023. (Tyler Coe)

“She’s a very valuable part of our team, but obviously, now that value has increased exponentially,” Fennelly said. 

Diew went 4-9 with 14 points against Oklahoma. The small-ball approach helped the offense to open up, and Diew’s length, combined with her athleticism, allowed her to guard any position on the floor. 

The Cyclones ran with the small-ball strategy in the following matchup against Kansas State. She put up eight points and seven rebounds in the 67-56 win, taking advantage of the Wildcats’ lack of size by spreading the floor and attacking the basket. 

“Just being another offensive threat,” Diew said, regarding her impact. “Just helping out the team whenever and wherever.” 

Iowa State’s approach with Diew at the five spot can have a tremendous upside, but it also has its detractions. With the size of teams in the Big 12, Iowa State would have to go to a traditional center at some point.

Eventually, the team needed to rely on Kane as the primary post-player for the Cyclones. With Kane down low, the Cyclones of 2022-23 resemble the makeup of last season’s squad. Still, it took an adjustment period and quality minutes for Kane to slot back into her previous role. 

“I feel like it’s easy on the outside saying, ‘Alright, you just flipped the switch, and you’re back,’ but obviously I was filling a different role at the beginning of the season,” Kane said. 

It wasn’t so much simply flipping a switch as it was Kane getting reps with the starting lineup, allowing the team and herself a chance to adjust. But once the minutes began to stack, Kane saw a boost in her production. 

She scored four points and pulled down one rebound in the Oklahoma game while filling in for Soares. After some trial and error over the next few games, Kane posted a season-high 11 points and eight rebounds against Oklahoma State, giving the Cyclones an edge in the close 69-64 win. 

It took a mindset shift for Kane to re-establish herself as the clear-cut presence in the paint for Iowa State, but with time, Kane has been able to act as the Cyclone’s reliable big once again. 

“When that happened to Steph, Mo’ has not missed a beat,” said Associate Head Coach Jodi Steyer following the Oklahoma State game. “She jumped right in; she’s ready to do whatever we need her to do.”

Even with Kane performing, one area of concern immediately following the Soares injury was the depth at the center position. The Cyclones already lost Jordao, and with Soares gone, Iowa State would need to rely on Zingaro for quality minutes. 

Zingaro saw limited time on the court before subbing for Kane in the Oklahoma game. She was entering the season knowing she didn’t have many chances to play with Soares, Kane and Jordao in the lineup. 

She gave Kane an opportunity to rest against Oklahoma but only secured two rebounds while scoring zero points in her seven minutes on the court, and she didn’t leave the bench against Kansas State. But much like Kane, all Zingaro needed was playing time and experience before she started to show improvement. 

“Izzi’s getting the opportunity that every kid says they want,” Fennelly said. 

In a 68-53 loss against Texas, one of Iowa State’s toughest matchups size-wise, Zingaro clocked 17 minutes, scoring six points and pulling down four rebounds. She was part of the reason why the Cyclones were able to stay competitive for the majority of the game.

Izzi Zingaro looks towards the hoop while being defended during the game against Kansas in Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 21, 2023. (Daniel Jacobi II)

She scored a pair of critical buckets against Oklahoma State, but it was the Kansas game where Zingaro earned her stripes. She scored a career-high 11 points and six rebounds, all while playing against center Taiyanna Jackson, a member of the Big 12’s All-Defensive team last season and one of the best bigs in the conference. 

“To go out there and give us that physical presence against a really good post player, one of the best in the country–let alone the Big 12–I thought was good and hopefully encouraging and something we can hold on for sure,” Fennelly said in the postgame presser. 

Kane and Zingaro’s improvement wasn’t magic. The pair didn’t hop off the bench and give quality minutes in the absence of Soares. Instead, it took extra work and time after practice to fully prepare for Iowa State’s worst-case scenario. 

“Coaches like Steyer and Assistant Coach Latoja Schaben along with other assistants took extra time to work with the bigs every day,” Fennelly said. They have also received help from Soares and Jordao, who aided the pair in the transition to their new roles. 

As a team, the Cyclones made a collective adjustment, changing their game plan to fit the circumstances out of their control. The team was demoralized when Soares went down, but now, Iowa State is set on its new plan going forward. 

“It’s kind of nice to see it start to gel,” Steyer said. “It takes a while, but now we’ve had a couple of weeks without Steph, so it’s time to get back to normal.”

“This is our normal team, and this is what we’re going to have,” Steyer said.

The game plan for the season went out the window as soon as Soares hit the floor in Norman. But, with some time to find an answer, the Cyclones have developed into a better team than the one that left the Lloyd Noble Center in defeat.