Heading into the fall, one of the things that excited coach Christy Johnson-Lynch about her team was the amount of depth it had.
Things changed in that regard pretty quickly, as Hannah Bailey, Avery Rhodes and Meegan Hart fell victim to injuries early in the season and haven't seen the floor since. It was a stroke of bad luck for sure, but the Cyclones pushed on and managed to hover at or above the .500 mark for most of the season without some key contributors.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, and things have gotten even worse for Iowa State. With only five games left and the team in great danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years, the Cyclones will head into Baylor with only nine players available; several of them are playing out of position.
"[Lack of depth] has been a theme for us all season," Johnson-Lynch said. "The injuries, players being out and having to kind of work around that."
Sophomore Candelaria Herrera already made the move to middle blocker from outside hitter early in the season after the Rhodes and Hart injuries, but now with Grace Lazard serving a two-game suspension for an undisclosed violation, she'll be joined in the middle by starting outside hitter Eleanor Holthaus and reserve setter Jenna Brandt.
Neither Holthaus nor Brandt have starting experience in the middle at the collegiate level, but the two will be tasked with holding down the fort for one more game until Lazard returns on Saturday against West Virginia.
Neither was especially impressive statistically in the match against TCU, but that's to be expected when having to learn an entirely different position within a few days. Johnson-Lynch was especially impressed with Holthaus' willingness to make the move, despite not having played middle since sophomore year of high school.
"We put Eleanor in the middle against TCU and she was a champ," Johnson-Lynch said. "She did what she could in trying to pick up the position in a couple of days."
All of that switching made it a tall task to try and defeat TCU at home, and the Cyclones ultimately fell short by losing in four sets. Despite the loss, Johnson-Lynch said that she was proud of the way the team fought with depth issues — particularly noting that the team's competitive spirit never wavered throughout what turned out to be a tough match.
Unfortunately for Iowa State, things won't get any easier when the team travel's to Baylor on Wednesday. The Bears are currently third in the conference and on a three game winning steak, seemingly finding their groove after an up-and-down season that's seen big wins and confusing losses.
Despite the Bears' improved play of late, the Cyclones see some areas of weakness that they can attack. In addition to some problems off the serve, sophomore setter Piper Mauck noted that occasional sloppiness from Baylor could lead to some opportunities for Iowa State.
"Sometimes they're just not so crisp, like their outsides don't always connect and their middles don't always connect with their setters," Mauck said. "If we can get a free ball from them and then put that away, that'd be great."
Johnson-Lynch noted that the Bears are a talented team that will provide a significant challenge to the Cyclones, especially on the road as they start to get healthier.
One specific area of concern for Iowa State's depleted middle will be how to handle Baylor's star outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, who had a season-high 39 kills against the Cyclones last month at Hilton Coliseum in a match that Baylor won in five sets.
With the absence of Lazard and an inexperience middle in Holthaus playing for the Cyclones, Pressley may have a chance to top that number. As someone who's played against her already, Herrera has been doing her best to get Holthaus and Brandt up to speed.
What helps for Herrera is the fact that she made a similar move earlier in the season, and she says that experience has helped her to understand what they two especially Holthaus, is going through. Herrera has also made it a point to give Holthaus and Brandt any advice that they need during the transition.
"That takes a huge switch," Herrera said. "It was for me at the beginning, so I really understand I just try to help them with everything. They are doing a really good job of helping the team."