Dec. 10, 2008

By Lara Boyko
Special to

When unranked Iowa State upset No. 10-ranked Minnesota 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Tournament last weekend, there were tears of joy and a sense of déjà vu.

“Last year when we beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin to move onto the Sweet 16 round it was pretty much the same thing,” said 6-foot-1 senior middle blocker Jen Malcom. “We were down 25-19 in the first set and had to battle back and keep pushing. We kept telling ourselves that it could be done. When the game was done there were tears shed in the locker room and it was crazy. You work so hard and then when you finally win, you are so tired, but still let your emotions out.”

This year’s waterworks from the Cyclones – one of two unranked teams still alive in the tournament -- came out on the court instead of waiting for the locker room, the end result was the same and Iowa State has extended its season to the second week in December for the second consecutive year. Yet even though the result was the same as a year ago, there is a big difference between the 2007 team that established a new benchmark for the program and this year’s team – experience.

“It is different in the sense that last year our team was dominated by upperclassmen while this year our team is dominated by underclassmen where we had up to five freshmen on the court playing at any given time,” said Malcom.

“We may be more naïve and they may not know any better, but when you have a lot of freshmen who haven’t been through this, they don’t know what they are supposed to do or that they are not supposed to do,” said Iowa State coach Christy Johnson, who is in her fourth year as head coach of the program. “It can be that sometime ignorance is bliss and it’s far fun to have that energy and belief on the team.”

This blissful belief has carried the Cyclones far this year. After appearing at No. 18 in the AVCA preseason poll, the Cyclones dropped out of the AVCA rankings all together and were acknowledged only in the form of receiving votes through September and November. It was a rough month of October that put this young team to the test.

“We weren’t getting votes and we didn’t deserve to,” said Johnson, who was played on Nebraska’s first national championship team in 1995.  “The middle of September with the start of the Big 12 Conference schedule we had a rough time. We went 1-4 during the start of the conference schedule. It was a combination of playing some really good teams and not being a great road team during most of the season. We didn’t beat any really good teams until the middle of the season. We had a rough start and it wasn’t looking that good. We hung in there and especially in our conference, sometimes you just have to grind it out and find a way to win when you need them and when you can.”

Yet even as bleak as the season was for the Cyclones in October when they fell off the radar, the tipping point of the season came at the end of this month.

“In October we knew we had a pretty hard schedule and had the mind set that even though we started off slow in September and then struggled, when we beat Kansas State we realized that we could turn it around,” said Malcom of their 3-2 win over then-ranked No. 13 Kansas State. “We knew that we didn’t have to be one of the bottom teams in the Big 12 Conference but could be one of the top teams. That win was another turning point in the season for us as it put us back on track and got us fired up for the tournament.”

With a little bit of fire and more power from their young team, the Cyclones, who finished fourth in the Big 12, were ready to take on anyone in their path when the selection committee placed them in the Austin Regional. From beating in-state rival Northern Iowa in the first round 3-1 and then Minnesota, it has been this attitude of the team that is making all those around the Iowa State program share in those tears of joy. 

“I am proud of the progress that they made over the season and how they did not give up,” said Johnson. “It’s been fun to be here and get into the Sweet 16 round for the first time. That was so special and to do it again this year, people can’t stop getting excited about our program and it’s fun to give Iowa State something to rally around.”