About two weeks ago, Iowa State volleyball was left with a decision: end its season after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years, or play for pride and continue on in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
Left up to the players, the team decided it wanted to keep going as long as it could, and that decision has paid off. The Cyclones defeated UNLV in four sets on Saturday, and will now advance to the NIVC finals on Tuesday to play one last match this season.
It wasn't particularly pretty, but Iowa State got the job done and gutted out an early afternoon win against the Rebels and former Cyclone assistant coach Dawn Sullivan, who was Iowa State's assistant coach the past 13 years.
"I thought it was just a gritty match," said Iowa State head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. "Mostly, I'm just proud of how we battled and hung in there. We had to come from behind a couple of sets, but we showed a lot of grit tonight."
Like Johnson-Lynch said, Iowa State had to come from behind multiple times, and the Rebels certainly didn't go down without a fight. The Cyclones fell behind 8-2 early in the first set, but slowly clawed their way back to take an extended first set, 31-29.
After winning the second set, however, UNLV stormed back to dominate the third set and control most of the fourth, before Iowa State went on a 6-1 run to seal the match. According to Johnson-Lynch, this was due in large part to a good game plan by Sullivan and the UNLV coaching staff, given the knowledge they had of Iowa State's players and system.
However, what primarily drove the Rebels was their serving, and in particular serving of sophomore outsider hitter Mariena Hayden. Hayden shined in the match with eight service aces, and her serve, which Johnson-Lynch called "the most deadly" she'd ever seen, led to numerous problems for Iowa State.
"I thought they served tough," Johnson-Lynch said of the Rebels. "We were not passing well a lot of that match and part of that was (Hayden) but it was other servers too. There were some rotations where we just felt like we want to get someone else the ball, but we're just not passing very well. They just made us very uncomfortable."
The players felt that way, too, and said that the Rebels played an aggressive style familiar to them from Sullivan's time at Iowa State.
"They were just really aggressive," senior outside hitter Jess Schaben said. "I think they took after that from Dawn because that's her main thing is aggression."
However, Iowa State was able to overcome UNLV's onslaught and save its best for last. In the final set, after previously hitting the ball at a .100 percent clip in the third, the Cyclones turned it on and came from behind to steal the fourth set 26-24. Their only lead in the set was a 1-0 advantage after the first serve.
In that final set, the Cyclones had a hitting percentage of .429 percent. This despite the fact that the team was hitting below .200 percent in the match up to that point.
According to junior outside hitter Josie Herbst, who spent her freshman season in 2016 on the UNLV volleyball team, the team was able to finally break through thanks to a consistent, sustained effort from all members. Herbst added that leadership from Schaben played a large role in that fact.
"Jess always talks to us after every set," Herbst said. "She always explains that we need to keep working hard and that we can't let up, and that we need to keep pushing and fighting."
Iowa State will now need to keep up that pushing and fighting for just one more game, as the Cyclones will play Tulane in the NIVC Championship.
While that may sound easy enough, given how the players chose to be in this tournament because of their love of the game, continuing to fight has been more of a challenge than perhaps the team had anticipated. This volleyball season has lasted the entirety of the fall semester, and 33 matches combined with daily practices takes its toll.
Add final exams on top of that, and Johnson-Lynch says that the whole NIVC experience has been more work than even she anticipated. Out of that, though, Johnson-Lynch said she's gained an even greater appreciation for her players.
"It's a grind, and this team is figuring out how to just keep at it," Johnson-Lynch said. "I appreciate that in the last couple of days more than I went into this tournament realizing. They're playing so hard, showing so much courage. We've got some tough kids."