Two defensive-focused teams will walk into Hilton Coliseum, only one will win

Head volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch watches her players during the game against the University of Iowa at Hilton Coliseum Sept. 9. The Cyclones defeated the Hawkeyes 3-0. 

Trevor Holbrook

After 10 consecutive Big 12 matches, Iowa State receives a fresh opponent Monday, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

The match will feature stellar defense from both teams. After years of below-average to average blocking, the Cyclones have exceeded all blocking expectations this season.

“Our blocking [against TCU] was really cool to see,” said Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch a week before the North Dakota match. “Those numbers were pretty elite, and [it was] pretty awesome to see us have a week blocking like that.”

North Dakota is a member of the Big Sky Conference, a much smaller conference than the Big 12, but the Fighting Hawks carry an impressive resume despite being in a small conference.

The Fighting Hawks have compiled a 23-4 this season. North Dakota and Iowa State share only one common opponent this season: New Mexico. Both teams swept New Mexico.

North Dakota’s bread and butter has been its defense. The Fighting Hawks are holding opponents to a feeble hitting percentage of .151.

North Dakota is also currently leading the Big Sky Conference in blocking and digging. The Fighting Hawks are averaging almost 18 digs per set and 2.67 blocks per set.

Leading the Fighting Hawks’ stout defense is senior hitter Faith Dooley. The Cyclones can anticipate seeing a heavy dose Dooley; Dooley is arguably North Dakota’s best all-around player.

Dooley is third in the Big Sky for hitting percentage, accumulating a .386 hitting percentage with 311 kills this season. The Wheatland, North Dakota native averages 3.27 kills per set.

As impressive as Dooley is on offense, her defense could be considered even better.

In her senior campaign, Dooley has been honored as the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week three times; the 6-foot-3 hitter has received the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week once.

North Dakota’s strong defense paired with Iowa State’s offensive inconsistencies could result in a tough, defensive match.

Fortunately for the Cyclones, Iowa State has benefitted from a defensive resurgence this season. Iowa State has reaffirmed its status as “Libero U” this season.

The Cyclones have consistently managed to have one of the top liberos in the nation each season. This season has been no different. Redshirt sophomore libero Hali Hillegas has locked down the position.

Hillegas leads the Big 12 with 186 digs this season, averaging 5.64 digs per set. To compare, the second-highest amount of digs by an individual in the Big 12 is Texas Tech libero Kate Klepetka with 151 digs.

Leading the Big 12 in any statistic is a big accomplishment for any player, but Hillegas doesn’t get caught up in her individual statistics.

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” Hillegas said when asked about leading the Big 12 in digs. “Some of the best liberos are in the Big 12 too… just being up there is awesome.”

Hillegas has anchored the back row of Iowa State’s defense, but the front row has been just as dominant.

Junior blocker Grace Lazard and freshman blocker Avery Rhodes have been dynamic for Johnson-Lynch and the Cyclones.

Last week, Lazard was named as the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week. Lazard currently ranks second in the Big 12 in blocks with 46 total blocks in conference play, averaging 1.39 blocks per set.

Under Lazard’s leadership, Rhodes has established herself as not just a starter for the Cyclones but a quality starter. Rhodes is sitting at eighth in the Big 12 for blocking.

In her first season at Iowa State, Rhodes has 36 total blocks in conference play with an average of 1.09 blocks per set.

“I’ve improved a lot [this year] because I’m watching my seniors like [Alexis Conaway], Samara [West] and Grace [Lazard],” Rhodes said. “I’m watching them a lot, and they’re really great mentors.”

With defense being one of North Dakota and Iowa State’s biggest strengths, this match could come down to which defense dominates more.

For fans interested in good defense, Hilton Coliseum is the place to be Monday at 6:30 p.m.