Figuratively speaking, Iowa State’s journey from women’s college volleyball’s soggy basement to knocking on the door of its penthouse has been quite a journey.
And in the case of the Cyclones, the part about being soggy isn’t all that figurative.
After winning a five-set match at No. 9 Florida on Labor Day, including 16-14 in the fifth set, Iowa State moved up from 19th in the 17th in the AVCA Coaches’ Poll.
“It was awesome,” senior outside hitter Carly Jenson said. “It was a long trip getting down there, but we definitely made it worth it.”
It was the sixth time ISU knocked off a top-five team since Christy Johnson-Lynch took over as first-time head coach in 2005. In that time, Iowa State has not only gone from being a volleyball afterthought, but to a program that has overcome a tremendous obstacle along the way. Consider that before Johnson-Lynch took over, the school had nine consecutive losing seasons and a Big 12 record of 13-167. The Cyclones won nine league matches her first season alone.
After going to the postseason once between 1973 and 2004, Iowa State has been to the past five NCAA Tournaments, making it to the round of 16 three times, including the final eight in 2008.
The fans in Ames have noticed. Attendance in 2009 had grown to a whopping average of 2,734, more than triple from the year before the coach arrived. But 2010? Well, playing in a local high school put the kibosh on that.
Iowa State was three days into practice in August when Ames, Iowa, was flooded.
“Flooded unexpectedly,” Johnson-Lynch recalled. “So we hadn’t moved anything. Just left everything as is and came in the next morning and our volleyball/basketball floor was floating on about 12 feet of water.”
Their offices were completely ruined and so was everything that the staff used to run the program, from computers to video equipment to files to the volleyball net systems, balls and uniforms.
“It all got ruined,” said Lynch, who was also pregnant with her second child at the time.
Luckily, they were able to practice at various sites, including Ames High School, where they also played their matches.
Offices? “We worked out of a little managers’ area in the basketball complex. It was just kind of hodge-podge to work and train, but we made it work,” Johnson-Lynch said.
Indeed. Iowa State, which got back into Hilton Coliseum for its final two matches of 2010, finished 20-9, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which gave the program its fourth 20-victory season in five years.
“Now we’re back into the groove and back into new offices and have it really good now,” Johnson-Lynch said with a laugh. “In a way the flood had a silver lining. We had so much to rebuild anyway, so now we have some great things with our office space and our locker rooms.”
Johnson-Lynch, a product of Omaha, Neb., was an All-American setter at Nebraska, where she won an NCAA title in 1995. She’s built the program at Iowa State with an interesting mix of, of course, Iowa players, but also key recruits from Nebraska.
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“I grew up there so I know a lot of the coaches there, and it’s right next door – two-and-a-half hours away – and there’s so much talent there,” Johnson-Lynch said. “So we hit that state very hard.”
One of those players is Jenson, who has had to grind and earn everything she’s gotten at Iowa State. She also capitalized on a tough situation, getting to play when junior Rachel Hockaday was lost again to yet another knee injury. Hockaday, who was second on the team in kills in 2009, got hurt in the first match of 2010 against Florida and missed the entire season. Jenson had 15 digs against Florida in a match that Johnson-Lynch said Iowa State won because of its defense and passing. Libero Kristen Hahn had 25 digs in the match.
“Carly is such a sweetheart who has worked really hard in her time here,” Johnson-Lynch said. “She’s a great all-around player with a really good all-around game.”
Jenson is also “a Millard North Mustang, where I graduated from,” Johnson-Lynch was quick to point out.
Perhaps the best player on the Iowa State team is Jamie Straube, a junior middle blocker from Tecumseh, Neb., who had 13 kills and hit .321 against Florida. She was an honorable mention All-American last year.
“She’s very physical,” Johnson-Lynch said. “She’s built to play middle blocker, tall but agile. She’s a 6-2 very athletic person who can become one of the best blockers in the country, and she can also terminate.”
You could argue that Jenson and Straube are typical of Iowa State’s roster.
“We done a really good job of finding really good athletes who maybe aren’t great volleyball players yet but we can teach them the game and make them great volleyball players,” Johnson-Lynch said.
Straube would vouch for that.
“We love the game and love to train and work hard,” Straube said. “We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to raise our level of play. I think that’s a big part of our success. We’re not like, ‘I’m coming and have nothing to work on,’ but let me see how I can take my game to the next level.”
Which, inevitably, leads to coaching.
Johnson-Lynch prides herself on being an outstanding setters coach. Assistant Dawn Sullivan was an All-American outside hitter at Kansas State, “and I think she does a tremendous job training our outsides,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Trudy Vande Berg was an outstanding middle blocker [at Wisconsin-Milwaukee] and I think we block really well.”
And then there’s the volunteer coach, Joe Lynch, who happens to be Christy’s husband.
They have two children, 2-year-old Jamison, and 9-month-old Addison, who travel with the team, thanks to Joe being around.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen,” his wife said.