The year 2015 was solid for Iowa State volleyball. The Cyclones finished 19-11 overall and made it all the way to the second round of NCAA Tournament where they were eliminated by the Wisconsin Badgers.
One of the main storylines from last year was how several main contributors suffered nagging injuries throughout the season. Sophomore outside hitter Jess Schaben dealt with a bad shoulder halfway through the campaign. Junior middle blocker Samara West had knee surgery last spring. Add to it, co-starting setter Suzanne Horner suffered a concussion.
But entering the 2016 season, Iowa State is at full strength.
“We are pretty healthy. Which was a concern coming into this season,” said head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch at Cyclone Volleyball media day earlier this week. “We are limiting Samara’s jumps and Schaben’s swings all season long during practice to keep them and our team healthy.”
How can Schaben improve upon her stellar freshman season?
How impressive was she as a freshman?
The Defiance, Iowa native collected accolade after accolade in her first season in Ames by tallying 345 kills – the second most in school history by a freshman. She was named to the All-Big 12 second team, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and was the AVCA Midwest Region Freshman of the Year.
The key for Schaben in 2016 is staying healthy.
“I have some real good trainers and coaches who work on making sure I limit my swings,” Schaben said. “I also do some heating and some cupping to keep [her shoulder] good.”
Another way for Schaben to improve upon her freshman is to become a full rotation player.
“She only played three rotations last year,” Johnson-Lynch said. “She really wants to stay in, pass, serve and play all around the court.”
Schaben certainly has the possibility to become a full rotation player for Iowa State in 2016.
One thing Johnson-Lynch stressed during media day was Iowa State’s tremendous depth. And that fantastic depth can be attributed to the Cyclones newcomers.
Iowa State has three newcomers on its roster: freshman outside hitter Anna Kiel, freshman libero Sami Hillmer and Evansville transfer outside hitter Genesis Miranda.
“I did not know if [Genesis] would be in the mix to play,” Johnson-Lynch said. “But she has put herself in a position to compete for a starting spot.”
Now with Kiel, she is coming to Ames with high accolades. Kiel was named the 2016 Des Moines Register Female High School Athlete of the Year and Sioux City Journal Siouxland Female Athlete of the Year.
According to Johnson-Lynch, Kiel is showing off tremendous athletic ability and the statistics she is recording in practice is up there with the veterans on the team. And Hillmer is also putting up herself in a position to play this year as well.
With these newcomers coming to Ames and impressing the coaching staff, and having several talented veterans, it allows Iowa State to be able to play with lineups before figuring out a set starting unit.
Who is going to be the next – possible – great Libero?
Since Iowa State doesn’t have an official starting lineup yet, all eyes will be on who the Cyclones choose to be their main Libero.
If you aren’t a regular ISU volleyball fanatic, the Cyclones can be dubbed as the ‘Libero U’ of collegiate volleyball. Since 2008, Iowa State’s libero has claimed the Big 12 Libero of the Year award.
ISU’s starting libero from last year, Caitlin Nolan, has graduated. So now the Cyclones must select between four players to replace Nolan: Hillmer, sophomore Abby Phillips, junior Branen Berta and redshirt freshman Hali Hillegas.
But how will Johnson-Lynch and company decide who will become quite possibly the next great Iowa State libero?
“I’ve always seen the libero as a passing position,” Johnson-Lynch said. “So we have been collecting statistics to see who is passing the best. And we also look at how they serve, what’s their demeanor and how they play defense.”
As of right now, the two leaders in the race to become the starting libero is Phillips and Berta. Phillips is passing the best out of all the liberos this offseason, but Berta has had two full seasons to learn behind Nolan.
Whomever replaces Nolan has a tough task in front of her.
“Nolan had such a high volleyball IQ,” Berta said.
This offseason, the Cyclones were predicted to finish third in the Big 12 behind Kansas and national powerhouse Texas.
Iowa State will need to do several things right throughout the year to have a successful 2016. They will need to be able to block better, improve their hitting percentage and decrease their opponents hitting percentage.
But with how the Cyclones look entering this year, Johnson-Lynch and company certainly have a lot to look forward too in 2016.