AMES – Iowa State volleyball (20-13, 9-7 Big 12) didn’t have the season it expected to have when the season began.
Slowly but surely, Iowa State was decimated with injuries. Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch lost middle blockers Avery Rhodes and Meegan Hart due to injury as well as outside hitter Brooke Anderson. At the end of the season, during Iowa State’s National Invitational Volleyball Championships run, First-Team All-Big 12 middle blocker Grace Lazard was kicked off the team.
Iowa State is playing a right-side hitter in Hannah Bailey and an outside hitter in Candelaria Herrera at middle blocker. It should be noted that Bailey dislocated her pinky finger on her right hand – she’s left-handed – and is playing with a game-approved cast on her right hand.
On Tuesday at Hilton Coliseum, through all the turmoil, Iowa State hosts Tulane (29-8, 13-5 American) in the championship game of the NIVC.
“I would’ve said at mid-season that this is just too much adversity,” Johnson-Lynch said. “But I really felt like once we got into November, it felt like, ‘What a year of growth.’ For our players, for me personally and for our staff. We’ve had so much adversity that I feel like we’ve flipped it. We’ve embraced it.
“To see some of the conversations I’ve had with some of the players, to see how they’re encouraging each other, to see how determined they are despite all these hitters that aren’t on the court – not even eligible to play. I don’t know if I’ve had a more inspiring season, either – as difficult as it’s been. To see them respond that way is so cool.
“That’s why we do what we do, that’s why I coach. You’re reminded that sports are so much more than the W or the L. It’s about growth, it’s about courage, it’s about dealing with adversity and determination. All of those things we are getting to see firsthand at the end of the season. It’s been awesome to witness.”
Through all of the adversity, Iowa State has had one cornerstone in First-Team All-Big 12 senior outside hitter Jess Schaben. Schaben, a Harlan graduate, has led her teammates – and even Johnson-Lynch at points – through this trying season.
“As players have gone out, and as the starting unit has gotten smaller and smaller, she’s been more and more determined,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I heard her say several times throughout the year, ‘I don’t care who we’re playing, I don’t care what situation we’re in – I’ll go do what I need to do to help this team win.’ That’s the approach she took, especially at the end of the season when we were down a couple of starters.
“We didn’t always get the result we wanted, but her determination was inspirational to the players and my staff. I told her the weeks that I was getting frustrated I would see how she responded, and I’d start thinking, ‘You know what, we’re going to do this. I’m going to be her. I’m going to act like her.’”
Iowa State made the NCAA Tournament for 13 straight seasons, so Schaben isn’t used to not playing in the most prestigious postseason tournament.
But she and her teammates are making the most of this opportunity.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty mad (we didn’t get invited to the NCAA Tournament) because I felt like we deserved it,” Schaben said. “After a couple days of days (I cooled off). And just getting to play again – I’d rather play than not do anything. Every time we’ve gotten to play, I’m really excited about it. This team is a really close team. We’ve been through a lot together.”