The Iowa State volleyball team begins the 2020 season with road games against the Kansas State Wildcats on Friday and Saturday.
What makes the 2020 season unique is Iowa State and the eight other Big 12 schools are playing a conference-only schedule, with doubleheader matchups on consecutive days to reduce travel.
“This (first match of the season) being a Big 12 matchup is so different, but we’re in the same boat as everyone else,” Iowa State volleyball Head Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said.
In regards to Friday and Saturday being Iowa State’s first matches of the season due to COVID-19, Johnson-Lynch said, “The volleyball is probably the easy part. It’s all the protocols and adjustments we’re working through, how we’ll be distant and all that stuff.”
Last season, Iowa State finished 17-12 (8-8 Big 12) and fourth in the Big 12, while Kansas State finished 9-19 (4-12 Big 12).
In the 2020 Big 12 Preseason Poll, Iowa State was picked third and Kansas State picked to finish at the bottom of the conference at eighth.
This season, Iowa State’s experienced lineup, which only lost one player from last season's team (Josie Herbst to graduation), including 2020 Preseason All-Big 12 players senior middle blocker Candelaria Herrera and junior right-side player Eleanor Holthaus, faces a Kansas State team that lost five players, including four of its top five point scorers.
In the last offseason, the Wildcats were hit hard with roster turnover.
Peyton Williams, who led the team in hitting with a .314 hitting percentage (tied for fifth in the Big 12 with Iowa State’s Herrera and Texas’ Logan Eggleston) and had the fourth most points on the team with 317 as a redshirt junior, is no longer with the team.
Williams also played for the women’s basketball team at Kansas State, becoming a two-time All-Big 12 First Team player, and signed a contract to play professionally in Russia.
Anna Dixon had the second most points on the team a season ago with 326, while Mutiri had the third most with 323 in addition to having the second highest hitting percentage of .242.
Sarah Dixon (no relation to Anna Dixon) had the second highest hitting percentage (.255) and seventh highest point total (72.5) for Kansas State last season, but she has graduated.
While the Wildcats did lose a lot from last season's team, they do have some good pieces coming back.
Kansas State’s offensive attack is led by redshirt junior outside hitter Brynn Carlson, who led the team in kills last season with 309 kills and had the tenth most kills per set in the Big 12 with 2.83.
Sophomore libero Dru Kuck had the fourth most digs in the Big 12 last season (3.66).
Redshirt junior middle blocker Megan Vernon finished tied for sixth, along with Iowa State’s redshirt senior middle blocker Avery Rhodes, in blocks per set in the Big 12 with 1.04.
In her redshirt freshman season, outside hitter Holly Bonde had the fifth most kills and points on Kansas State with 120 kills and 137 points.
With many pieces gone from last season’s team, Kansas State has some new faces in spots they haven’t been in before at the collegiate level.
“What’s going to be challenging is we’re not familiar with K-State because they'll have so many new people,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We don’t know what lineup to expect; we don’t really know their starters.”
Johnson-Lynch said this is very unusual for them.
“Usually, you know, aside from the first weekend of the year, you kind of know what to expect,” Johnson-Lynch said.
While the Wildcats lineup may be new, Iowa State’s is not, since it has 15 players returning from last season’s team.
“We return so much, so they’ll have a lot better feel from us than we will for them,” Johnson-Lynch said. “We’re going to have to figure out on the fly their lineup, system, who maybe is their go-to hitter and then we’ll have a chance to make adjustments and do it again on Saturday.”
Iowa State is returning one of the top lineups in the Big 12, headlined by Herrera and Holthaus.
Holthaus led the Cyclones in total points and points per set with 361.5 total and 3.73 per set, both sixth best in the Big 12 in 2019. She also had the most kills for the Cyclones with 308 and 3.18 per set (both seventh best in the Big 12).
Herrera led Iowa State in hitting percentage with a number of .314 (minimum 100 attacks) and had the second most blocks on the team with 101, nine blocks behind a fellow Cyclone, Rhodes.
In recent weeks, Johnson-Lynch has said the team’s blocking is vastly improved from last season. The Cyclones were tied for fifth in blocks (2.14) in the Big 12 last season with TCU.
Rhodes said blocking is the area where the team has grown the most since the end of the season in 2019.
“We’re watching the ball more, we’re watching the setter set, we’re making a great time with the hitter that’s making their approach,” Rhodes said.
As a team last year, Iowa State had the seventh most blocks among the Big 12 teams (229.5).
Iowa State also has senior setter Piper Mauck who finished fourth in the Big 12 in assists per set with 10.27.
The Cyclones also have senior libero Izzy Enna who finished eighth in digs per set in the Big 12 with 3.21.
In last season’s matchups, Iowa State won both 3-0.
Heading into this weekend’s doubleheader, Johnson-Lynch doesn’t appear to be putting too much importance on these matches as a way of predicting how the season could go.
“It feels important, but at the same time I’ve seen all sorts of Big 12 seasons, we’ve started out really poorly and gone on to be really good, but also we’ve started out really good and faded,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I don’t think this weekend is everything, I think there is going to be a learning curve with the [COVID-19] protocols we have in place, with everything we’re doing for travel and just with our team, lineup...it’s going to take us a little time, all the Big 12 teams are in the same boat.”
Friday and Saturday’s matchups are taking place at 6:30 p.m. at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas, and are being livestreamed via Big 12 Now on ESPN+.