Iowa State volleyball prepares for ninth-straight NCAA tournament


Sam Greene/Iowa State Daily

Junior libero and defensive specialist Caitlin Nolan controls a stray pass during a match against TCU on Nov. 15. Iowa State won the match 3-2 after five close sets.

Harrison March

Madness is upon the ISU volleyball team. Not the bad kind but rather the NCAA tournament version.

The Cyclones learned their fate Nov. 30, as they were slotted by the selection committee to journey across the Mississippi River to the Land of Lincoln for a first-round match against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in Champaign, Ill.

“We’re just excited to be in the tournament,” said senior outside hitter Victoria Hurtt. “It’s always fun this time of year to get to play the best teams and get to hopefully be in Oklahoma City [for the semifinal and championship matches] in a couple weeks.”

The thrill of being chosen for the tournament was not maximized, however, as the Cyclones did not earn the right to host the first two rounds at Hilton Coliseum.

Unlike the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament, in which every team is seeded, the volleyball edition features seeding for just the top-16 teams, and the rest of the field is in an unranked pool.

However, failing to capture a seed does not eliminate the Cyclones from a chance at returning to Hilton this year. Before the season began, Iowa State was preselected as a host school for the regional semifinal and regional final rounds, which are equivalent to Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matches.

The ISU volleyball team was placed in the Ames region of the bracket, so winning the first-round match and defeating the winner of No. 9 seed Illinois vs. Murray State would bring the Cyclones home for at least one more contest.

“I mean, yeah, it was a bummer that we’re not getting to host,” said libero Caitlin Nolan. “But it gets you kind of excited and ready to go and kind of a little bit more hungry to get back here and play hopefully.”

ISU players admitted the team probably had a 50-50 shot at hosting the opening round, given the team’s No. 15 Rating Percentage Index ranking the morning of the selection. Though the RPI poll can be a good indicator of where teams stand overall, ISU coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said the system also has its defects.

“I don’t think [the selection committee] should go strictly on RPI, because I think it’s flawed, and you don’t want to see that,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Some years you’re on the good side of that, some years not. If they went strictly by RPI, I just don’t know that that would be fair to all teams.”

While not hosting makes it difficult for any team, it may be especially tough for the Cyclones, who are 2-0 on neutral courts this year but just 5-6 in road matches.

To Johnson-Lynch, that’s just the nature of the beast.

“No matter what road you get, it’s tough,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We would rather be at home, but you got to win, you got to beat the good teams on the road to really advance.”

As the Cyclones enter their ninth-consecutive NCAA tournament, the goal is obvious. Playing for an NCAA title may not be the most special part of this season to Johnson-Lynch, however.

On Nov. 2, Iowa State fell at the hands of the tournament’s No. 2 seed Texas. The loss dropped the Cyclones to 11-9 on the year, and it appeared things were heading south.

Instead, Iowa State, reinvigorated by a switch in its offensive system, rallied to win six of its last seven matches and reversed a loss to Texas Tech from earlier in the season to finish the year at 18-9 and make serious push to be seeded.

Even if her team doesn’t finish the year by hoisting the coveted championship trophy that it has its sights set on, the Cyclones still have something to hang their hats on in the 2014-15 campaign.

“I am just really proud of this team and how they turned things around mid-season,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We, for a while there, were wondering if we’d even be sitting in this room tonight. To have such a turnaround and then to be in the position to possibly host, that’s a pretty incredible turnaround.”