At the end of the 2004 season, Iowa State had only made one NCAA tournament appearance in program history and had an all-time record of 542-596-10.
Fast forward to the present day and the Cyclones have made 12 NCAA tournament appearances under head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, who, with a 3-0 win over West Virginia on Saturday, earned her 300th victory as Iowa State’s head coach and improved her career record to 300-147.
Johnson-Lynch’s journey to 300 wins as Iowa State’s head coach started back in 2004, when she was an assistant coach for the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers were the 14th-ranked team in the country at the time and hosted opening weekend matchups in the 2004 NCAA tournament in Madison, Wisconsin, on Dec. 1 and 2. They won both games in the opening weekend and headed to the regional finals in Green Bay the following weekend.
In 2004, Iowa State completed its season on Nov. 24, finishing 8-21 and in search of a new head coach.
One of the coaches Iowa State reached out to was Johnson-Lynch. The two parties then had an interview before the Final Four.
Wisconsin was eliminated from the 2004 NCAA tournament in the regional finals Dec. 11 after a 3-0 loss to the eventual national champion Stanford Cardinal.
Johnson-Lynch flew out to watch the Final Four in Long Beach, California, which was Dec. 16 and 18.
While in Long Beach, Johnson-Lynch received a phone call in her hotel room that would change Iowa State’s volleyball program forever.
During the phone call, Johnson-Lynch was offered the head coaching job for the Cyclones — which she accepted.
“I was super thrilled, but then I had to start making phone calls to all the [Wisconsin] players and tell my boss, which was a difficult couple of hours because I loved where I was at,” Johnson-Lynch said. “It was an emotional time for me but yet so exciting."
Johnson-Lynch was officially named Iowa State’s head coach Dec. 17, 2004.
“I remember when she took the job at Iowa State and I remember everyone being excited for her,” said Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard, who was the Wisconsin athletic administrator at the time. “When I got hired here a year later as athletics director [Johnson-Lynch] was a friendly face because we shared that Wisconsin experience together.”
Coming into Johnson-Lynch’s first season at Iowa State, the Cyclones were on a 17-game losing streak, had gone 1-19 in conference play in the previous year and hadn’t had a winning season in ten years.
In 2005, with Johnson-Lynch at the helm, the program made some significant strides. The Cyclones finished 16-15 (9-10 Big 12) and for the first time in program history (32 years), the Cyclones earned more than eight wins in conference play.
Another accomplishment that occurred in-season was that, for the first time in 10 years, the Cyclones defeated a top-25 opponent, beating the 18th-ranked Texas Longhorns 3-1.
2006 was yet another stride forward for the Cyclones, as they won only their second NCAA tournament game in program history, coming against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers in Madison, Wisconsin.
More success came for Iowa State in the years to follow, as the Cyclones made the Sweet 16 in 2007 and had a miraculous NCAA tournament run in 2008, which led them to make the Elite Eight.
The Cyclones finished the 2008 regular season with a 19-12 (11-9 Big 12) record. In the NCAA tournament, they defeated the Northern Iowa Panthers, the 10th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers and the seventh-ranked Oregon Ducks before losing to the third-ranked Texas Longhorns in the regional final.
After losing in the Sweet 16 in the 2009 NCAA tournament and the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, Johnson-Lynch’s squad made another Elite Eight run in 2011 after beating Milwaukee, the 25th-ranked Miami (FL) Hurricanes and Minnesota.
The Cyclones got the closest they’ve ever come to reaching a Final Four in 2011, where it took the 21st ranked Florida State Seminoles to five sets but lost 3-2.
Since then, Johnson-Lynch’s squad has remained an NCAA tournament regular as they made the NCAA tournament field every year except in 2018, which was the first time they had missed the NCAA tournament since Johnson-Lynch’s first season in 2005.
2018 was a still a good season for the Cyclones, as they won the National Invitational Volleyball Championship to end the season with a record of 22-13 (9-7 Big 12).
In her coaching career at Iowa State, Johnson-Lynch has averaged 20.6 wins and 10.2 losses per season. Over her 15 seasons at Iowa State, Johnson-Lynch’s teams have become known for being tough to score on.
A lot of this can be attributed to Christy’s husband, Joe Lynch.
Lynch serves as a volunteer assistant coach and has been on Christy’s staff for her entire tenure at Iowa State.
“I respect him tremendously, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I would feel like our team is not getting the best if he is not working with them.”
In his tenure at Iowa State, Lynch has helped coach future All-American liberos, two-time All-American Caitlin Nolan as well as three-time All-Americans Kristen Hahn and Ashley Mass. Hahn would then go on to be the first Cyclone to ever earn a spot on the United States Senior National Team.
Also in Lynch’s tenure, Iowa State has had eight Big 12 Libero of the Year award winners and 47 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week award winners. With Lynch and Johnson-Lynch being on the same coaching staff, it can create an interesting dynamic on and off the court.
“For us [...] it works because we are so passionate about this; we share it,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We see things in a similar way so we’re not spending so much time arguing with each other. It’s natural and it feels very easy.”
Both Lynch and Johnson-Lynch were accomplished players during their playing career. Lynch earned a spot on the USVBA (USA Volleyball) men’s team from 1994 to 2002.
Johnson-Lynch earned a spot on the 1989 U.S. Junior National Team and a spot on one of the 1993 U.S. National Teams.
“I’ve been blessed to have great coaches as a high school player and a club player,” Johnson-Lynch said. “My high school coach Deb Grafentin is one of the best high school coaches in the nation and I had a club coach move to Omaha that was an All-American setter.”
It was in this time period Johnson-Lynch developed a love for the sport of volleyball, but it wasn’t the only sport she loved.
“I was a big softball girl growing up,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I thought I was going to play softball in college, but then I started to love [volleyball] in my sophomore year in high school. The turning point for me was when I tried out for the Junior National Team.”
At the time, there were not a lot of Midwest people at the highest level, but Christy — an Omaha, Nebraska native — made a name for herself playing the setter position. Going into the tryout, not even Johnson-Lynch expected to make it on the team at the time.
“I never thought in a million years that I would make it, but I ended up starting for the team,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I remember thinking at that time that this was unexpected but really cool.”
Johnson-Lynch went on to play college volleyball for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. While playing at Nebraska, Johnson-Lynch made four NCAA tournament appearances, earned All-American honors in 1994 and 1995 and won three Big Eight titles. Johnson-Lynch was the starting setter on the Cornhusker team that won the 1995 NCAA Championship.
At setter, Johnson-Lynch was part of a team that went 63-2 in her final two seasons at Nebraska, giving her the second-highest winning percentage among Nebraska setters. In the 1994 and 1995 NCAA tournament, Johnson-Lynch was named to the NCAA All-Regional Team as well as the Big Eight Conference All-Tournament Teams. Johnson-Lynch also earned a spot on the 1995 NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team.
Professionally, Johnson-Lynch played with the Nebraska Tornadoes of the National Volleyball Association for two seasons, leading the Tornadoes to the league championship in 1998.
Following her playing career, Johnson-Lynch served as an assistant coach at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
In her coaching career, as well as in her playing career, Johnson-Lynch has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches in the industry.
“Lots of people have shaped my philosophy — Terry Pettit (Johnson-Lynch’s coach at Nebraska), John Cook (Nebraska’s current head coach), Pete Waite (Wisconsin’s head coach while Christy was an assistant there), my high school coach — and I’ve learned so much from them,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Sometimes, I go back to how I saw them handle certain situations and figure out how I can apply it in the future.”
Johnson-Lynch has had a profound effect on Iowa State’s volleyball program, building a consistent program year in and year out.
Many different head coaches have come and gone for one reason or another in the other sports that Iowa State plays. But Johnson-Lynch has continued to stay in Ames and have success at Iowa State.
“One of the things that I’ve shared with many of our coaches is that if you want to study success, then you ought to go talk to Christy,” Pollard said. “She had a very detailed five-year plan that she continues to work through.”
The other head coach that has stayed at Iowa State for more than 15 years is women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly.
Johnson-Lynch and Fennelly have been head coaches at Iowa State for at least 15 seasons. Johnson-Lynch has been a coach for 15 years, while Fennelly is going into his 25th year. Johnson-Lynch and Fennelly took programs that either had never been to the NCAA tournament or only made it once and made them into a winning program. They have made it to 30 NCAA tournaments combined and have a combined record of 805-417.
One of the biggest accomplishments under Johnson-Lynch’s belt is the increase in attendance.
Since 2006, Iowa State has had all but one season where they had at least 20,000 people in total attendance at home matches and have ranked in the top 25 in total attendance in each season.
Iowa State has averaged over 2,000 fans per game in eight out of the last 10 seasons and has averaged at least 1,000 fans per game in each season with Johnson-Lynch at the helm.
“Much like I’ve asked coaches to follow her blueprint, she’s followed coach Fennelly’s,” Pollard said. “Coach Fennelly has done an awesome job of getting fans engaged into his program; she’s followed that and taken it to a different level by doing stuff like delivering tickets to the season ticket holders to the doors — they do things that make people feel like ‘this is my program.’”
One of the things players praise about Johnson-Lynch is her strong character.
They say there are certain things about her that make her likable on and off the court.
“I respect her so much as a coach and her knowledge is amazing,” said redshirt sophomore Avery Rhodes. “She showed me how to be mentally strong after my injury last year and how to come back stronger. “
For some players, the bond she’s built with them is unique. One of those unique rapports she’s built is with junior middle blocker Candelaria Herrera. Herrera is from San Juan, Argentina, and is a long way from her family.
“She’s so special to me, she’s like my mom here,” Herrera said. “Our relationship is very nice and I know I can trust her, we’re very close.”
This season, the Cyclones are 11-5 and are a young team.
Eleven out of the 16 players on the Cyclones’ roster are underclassmen, and because of this, there may be a time where they get flustered and could use a coach who is calm, cool and collected.
According to some accounts, Johnson-Lynch has been that coach for the Cyclones.
“She’s very poised, calm and nurturing,” said sophomore right-side player Eleanor Holthaus.
With Iowa State’s 11-5 record, Johnson-Lynch’s squad appears to be on track to make it back into the NCAA tournament.
This could be a good sign for the future with such a young roster and Johnson-Lynch at the helm.
“She’s an awesome coach and when I think of the future of Iowa State volleyball, I want her to be the coach,” Pollard said. “If she’s leading our volleyball program, then I know the program will represent this institution extremely well.”