The Iowa State Cyclones volleyball team is returning to the NCAA Tournament.
The Cyclones’ tournament hopes were supposedly weary after three straight losses to end the regular season to Texas Tech, Kansas and No. 4 Texas. In the game against Kansas, the Cyclones won the first two sets and went on to lose the next three.
Iowa State will travel to Minneapolis, where it will take on Creighton in the first round on Friday. Match time is still to be announced.
“Waiting was really an emotional roller-coaster,” said the Cyclones' lone senior Josie Herbst. “They went halfway through the bracket and I started to get worried because I thought I played my last game. Then we saw Minnesota, and I knew that was going to be our chance because they are closest to us.”
The NCAA volleyball tournament doesn’t follow the natural seeding process of the NCAA basketball tournament. Each team cannot travel more than 400 miles for the first round. Therefore, Minneapolis was the last logical location for the Cyclones.
That limitation can either help or hinder teams’ odds at making the tournament based on who the automatic qualifiers are. Iowa State was able to squeak its way in thanks to the approximate 215-mile difference from Minneapolis.
While Iowa State was worried about making the tournament, the selection show put up a graphic of the last four in and Iowa State wasn’t on it. This means that the committee thought of Iowa State more highly than some may have thought.
“The wait was horrible,” said coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. “That was probably one of the most anxious waits I’ve ever had except for maybe my first year.”
The Cyclones finished the regular season with a record of 17-11, and 8-8 in Big 12 play. Their resume is highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the Big 12. The fourth place team has made the NCAA Tournament in six out of the last seven years. Iowa State also holds wins against in-state rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa. The Panthers made the tournament and will play Missouri in the first round.
This is the 14th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance for Iowa State. Thirteen of them have come under Johnson-Lynch.
Last year broke a 12-year streak dating back to 2006 of consecutive appearances for the team.
“Coming off of last year and not making it was pretty tough for us," said sophomore outside hitter Brooke Andersen. "We were not completely sure about this year so to see our name up there was pretty cool and I am so excited to have that chance to start over."
The winner of the Iowa State-Creighton game will face either No. 7 Minnesota or Fairfield in the next round.
Iowa State’s youth is a concern for the team heading into the NCAA Tournament, as some of the team’s key contributors have yet to play in an NCAA Tournament environment.
One of those contributors is top hitter Eleanor Holthaus. The sophomore has missed the past couple games after she sustained an ankle injury in practice prior to the Kansas game. She leads the Iowa State offense with 3.24 kills per set, while also hitting .255.
“Making it gives us a great opportunity to put things behind us, especially after those tough losses and lineup changes,” Johnson-Lynch said. “It will be a defensive battle and will probably be like playing one of the best teams in the Big 12.”
The Cyclones have faced the Blue Jays three times within the past year. The last time the two faced was during a preseason exhibition in August, where the Cyclones won three sets to two. During the regular season last year, Creighton won three sets to one.
Creighton went on to a 24-5 record this year, along with a 17-1 in the Big East Conference. Their only loss was to Villanova, who they swept earlier in the season. The Blue Jays also defeated UNI, and boast key ranked wins over No. 12 Marquette and No. 14 Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Iowa State has battled injuries for much of the year but has still managed to show flashes of potential against ranked opponents and grind out key wins.
Creighton’s RPI ranking is 20th and Iowa State’s is 46th. The Blue Jays were ranked 10th in the latest AVCA Coaches Poll on Nov. 24.
In the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen.
“There’s way more to fight for in the tournament,” Andersen said. “It will be a different mindset going into the tournament.”