Fiona Fonoti and Iowa State volleyball: transitioning together

Iowa State assistant volleyball coach Fiona Fonoti warms-up with sophomore setter Piper Mauck prior to the Iowa State spring tournament on Saturday April 7, 2018.

Spencer Suckow

In your head, briefly think of yourself standing outside and watching a steady stream of snow flurries fall to the ground in the middle of January.

If you spent this semester at Iowa State, you may have felt uneasy or even cringed at the thought of that sight. It’d be hard to blame you for feeling that way, given how long and brutal the Ames winter seemed in 2018.

With snowstorms pelting central Iowa until mid-April this year, it’d be understandable if someone doesn’t even want to think about that experience. When new Iowa State assistant volleyball coach Fiona Fonoti thinks of it, however, she can’t help but remember how perfect it was.

“I’ve got to tell you, I loved it,” Fonoti said of the snow. “My family came up to visit one weekend and it was great. I’m probably the only one in Ames that thought that.”

The reason Fonoti loved it so much was because of how long it had been since she’d last seen snow. After an illustrious playing career at the University of Nebraska, where she was a three-time All-American at setter and the Big 12 Player of the Year in 1998, Fonoti finished her undergraduate degree in secondary education and moved back to her native state of Hawaii.

There, she managed to stay out of the cold for 15 years while working as a math and special education teacher. She didn’t stay out of the game, however. During that time, Fonoti worked as a coach across several capacities.

Among these include being an assistant varsity girls coach at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, a personal setter coach at the Elite Setting Academy in Pearl City, Hawaii, and head coach for the Lil’ Spiker Academy, among others.

Combine that coaching experience with her decorated playing career, as well as a decades-long friendship with Iowa State coach and former Nebraska teammate Christy Johnson-Lynch, Fonoti made for an ideal candidate to fill the void left by the departure of Dawn Sullivan on Iowa State’s coaching staff.

“One of the reasons I really did want to hire [Fonoti] is because I knew what we’d be getting,” Johnson-Lynch said. “When you know exactly what to expect from that person, if they’re going to work hard, what they’re going to do when times are tough, if they’re a team player, I knew all that and I really liked what she had.”

Much like with the weather from Honolulu to Ames, though, there’s a similarly large transition Fonoti is going through in replacing Sullivan. Before taking the UNLV head coaching job this off-season, Sullivan spent the past 14 years with the Cyclones and formed many tight relationships with the team’s current roster.

None of those relationships were as close as the one Sullivan had with Johnson-Lynch, however. According to the Cyclones’ head coach, the two were together so long it almost felt like a divorce when Sullivan left for Las Vegas.

Because the two were so familiar with each other, Johnson-Lynch says there have been some noticeable adjustments and growing pains with having a new coach on staff.

As if replacing an established coach and working with new players, as well as performing other job aspects like recruiting and traveling, weren’t daunting enough tasks on their own, Fonoti is also facing these challenges without her family in Ames to support her. Fonoti’s husband and kids stayed back in Hawaii when she took over as assistant coach.

All of that at once sounds like a lot for anyone to deal with, but Fonoti is currently taking everything in stride by bringing significant energy to her work. Additionally, Fonoti also says her prior experience in teaching is helping to ease the transition into her new role.

“I think with my background, I’ve been used to kind of preparing, planning, planning lesson plans and what-not,” Fonoti said. “It’s a little bit tough, but it’s so well worth it.”

Fonoti’s energy, though, that’s one detail of her personality that seems to have struck a major chord with the Iowa State players and coaching staff.

Fonoti has earned nothing but adoration from the team since stepping on campus, and several players mention her energy and demeanor as a major reason why. Those traits, perhaps as much as anything else, seem to have significantly helped with the overall transition.

“I’m obviously really sad to see Dawn [Sullivan] leave because she had such an impact on my life as an outside hitter,” said senior Jess Schaben. “But Fiona [Fonoti] has been such a huge addition to our team. She has this positive energy and she knows a lot, especially about the setting game.”

Using that setting knowledge has been the primary focus of Fonoti’s biggest task since joining the coaching staff, which is ensuring the Cyclones get the most out of sophomore setter Piper Mauck.

It’s been documented that Mauck is expected to break out this season, and Fonoti is ensuring that happens by giving Mauck extra attention during practice and working through drills with her after practice. Despite just meeting each other recently, Mauck has been very receptive of her new coach and offered praise for Fonoti’s style and approach.

“[Fonoti’s] fun to play with, really creative and has a whole new perspective,” Mauck said. “She’s been awesome.”

All in all, the praise for Fonoti and the willingness from players and coaches to listen to her suggestions has helped create a welcoming environment for her in a short amount of time. One Fonoti says she’s happy and proud to be a part of.

Not everything will be perfect right away and it will take awhile to get fully acclimated, but the newest member of Iowa State’s coaching staff already feels as if she’s right at home (even if the thermometer may sometimes say otherwise).

”It’s been pretty awesome. [The team] has just kind of accepted me in,” Fonoti said. “Honestly, it just feels like I’m part of the family.”