The legacy, future of Iowa State’s libero success

Defensive specialist and libero Ashley Mass celebrates a point against Texas A&M during the game on Saturday, Oct. 16, at Ames High School. Mass broke the Big 12 record for digs with 2,041, passing Kansas States Angie Lastra, who had 2,032.

Photo: Rebekka Brown/Iowa State Daily

Defensive specialist and libero Ashley Mass celebrates a point against Texas A&M during the game on Saturday, Oct. 16, at Ames High School. Mass broke the Big 12 record for digs with 2,041, passing Kansas State’s Angie Lastra, who had 2,032.

Garrett Kroeger

Just as the ISU men’s basketball team is considered “Transfer U” to some around the nation, the ISU volleyball team could be considered “Libero U.”

In 2001, the Big 12 conference decided to give out an award for the best libero of the year. Seven years passed until an ISU libero finally achieved the honor. 

Ever since, the team has dominated the award. 

“If you are a good libero in high school and/or club volleyball, you are told to take a look at Iowa State,” said ISU volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch.

Since 2008, the libero position has been the Cyclones’ forte. The stem of ISU libero greatness goes back to Katie Churm, the starting libero just before Iowa State put out a string of award-winning liberos. 

Churm was the libero who Johnson-Lynch and her staff inherited once they arrived in Ames. She turned out to be outstanding under Johnson-Lynch in her final two years of college.

In 2005, Johnson-Lynch’s first season and Churm’s junior year, Churm led the Big 12 in digs per set at 4.35. She finished her final season with 3.99 digs per set, placing her seventh in the Big 12.

Although Churm would never claim the Big 12 Libero of the Year, certain aspects of Churm’s game were present that make her worthy of credit for starting the “Libero U” tradition.

“She was very simple, she just passed the ball where it needed to be,” said ISU assistant coach Dawn Sullivan.

Once Churm departed from Ames, Iowa State finally brought in the libero who kicked off the run Big 12 Libero of the Year award winners — Ashley Mass.

In 2007, Mass’ freshman year, she shattered the freshman digs record by posting 532 digs that season — 173 digs better than the previous record.

Then she grew leaps and bounds heading into her sophomore season.

Mass broke the school record for digs in a season, became the fastest player to 1,000 digs and had the most matches with at least 10-plus digs in a season.

“She was a very simple passer and read the game better than most players,” Sullivan said.

Mass’ impressive season helped her earn the first of many Big 12 Libero of the Year awards. She would go on to win the award in her junior and senior seasons as well. And at the end of Mass’ career, she became the Big 12 record holder for career digs.

But the Cyclones’ libero tradition didn’t stop there, as they had the next great libero on the roster during Mass’ senior year.

“(Mass) taught me a lot about being patient and playing relaxed,” said former Cyclone Kristen Hahn in an interview with the Daily in 2013

Hahn took over the libero position in 2011 once Mass graduated. And her play proved as successful as Mass’.

In Hahn’s first season as a starter, she led the Big 12 with 5.44 digs per set in 2011, earning her Big 12 Libero of the Year. 

“[Iowa State] told me I could be a Big 12 Libero of the Year winner,” Hahn said in 2013.

Hahn did just that, plus more. Just like Mass, Hahn would follow up winning the Big 12 Libero of the Year her sophomore year and become the second player in Big 12 history to win the award three times.

Hahn won 17 straight Big 12 defensive player of the week awards, a conference record, her junior season. Hahn was also the first libero in Big 12 history to be named a unanimous All-Big 12 honoree twice.

“She was great defensively, got a lot of digs and she knew exactly where to be defensively,” Sullivan said.

Iowa State would replace Hahn with another talented libero, Caitlin Nolan.

Nolan had the opportunity to shadow Hahn for two years, which allowed her to soak in some of Hahn’s tendencies.

“I learned a lot from her,” Nolan said. “She taught me how to be a good, competitive leader for this team.”

Nolan excelled in her first year as the main ISU libero as a first-team All-Big 12 honoree and extended Iowa State’s streak of winning Big 12 Libero of the Year to seven straight years. Nolan even set an ISU match record with 43 digs against Kansas last year.

Now, in her senior season, Nolan is averaging 5.6 digs per set, ranking her No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 6 in the NCAA.

All three ISU liberos — Mass, Hahn and Nolan — are the only three liberos in Big 12 history to be unanimous Preseason All-Big 12 Team selections.

What made these three talented liberos the best in the Big 12?

“[Mass, Hahn and Nolan] were all different in the ways they played the libero position,” Johnson-Lynch said. “But they all strived toward greatness, which ultimately allowed them to achieve that honor.”

Coming out of high school, not all potential recruits will have what it takes to be the top libero in the Big 12, but Iowa State looks for a specific trait in each recruit that it can build on to mold them into the top players in the conference. 

“Passing is a key thing that we look for, we also look for court presences and having the willingness to learn,” Sullivan said.

Nolan’s time at Iowa State will soon pass by, and Iowa State will need to search for a new libero to take over.

But it won’t have to look far.

Sophomore Branen Berta, freshmen Hali Hillegas and Abby Phillips will compete for the starting libero position in 2016. It seems it will be a tough competition as all three have earned high remarks from past and current liberos. 

“[Berta] has such a high drive and passion for the game, while [Hillegas] just tries to soak everything in,” Nolan said.

Phillips received good remarks from Hahn.

“I could see [Phillips] becoming a Big 12 Libero of the Year winner if she keeps on pushing herself,” Hahn said.

Stressing defense is something that Iowa State coaches say is key, making liberos crucial to the team’s strategy. 

“Here at Iowa State, we have coaches who really stress on defensive techniques and are also very knowledgeable on defense,” Nolan said.