Up until about a month or so ago, it wasn't even confirmed whether or not there would be a volleyball season.
Now, with the first match fast approaching, the Iowa State volleyball team is preparing for their first match of the season Friday against Kansas State.
Two Cyclones earned All-Big 12 Preseason Honors this year — junior right side player Eleanor Holthaus and senior middle blocker Candelaria Herrera.
Holthaus was a unanimous selection.
Cyclone volleyball Head Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said Iowa State will be relying on both of them to bring leadership and experience to the team.
Johnson-Lynch said Herrera has very fast feet and a physical presence at the net, which makes her an elite blocker.
"She has the ability to really impact the match, especially blocking," Johnson-Lynch said. "She can really get in an opponent's head. If an attacker is blocked by her straight down a couple times, they begin to doubt themselves, they begin to change their shots. She can really get into an attacker's head that way and affect their confidence."
Johnson-Lynch also said Herrera is an emotional leader because when you see she is having fun and you see her smiling and celebrating, the team knows she is feeling it and it is contagious.
Holthaus is another player Johnson-Lynch will rely on to lead this year because of her consistency and experience.
She recently had surgery in the spring, and it took her a little bit to get going in August, but Johnson-Lynch said she thinks she will pick up where she left off, and Holthaus looks like she is now playing at the level she was playing at before she got injured.
Johnson-Lynch said the team relies on Holthaus to be an all-around player — passing, defense, serving — they need her in all parts of the game.
"I think this year we're looking for her to take her blocking up a notch," Johnson-Lynch said. "Our hope and our goal is for her, same as Candelaria, to be someone that gets in the head of opponents and thinks twice before they challenge her hands on the block."
Advantages and disadvantages
The Cyclones returned most of their roster from last year, which Johnson-Lynch said adds experience and gives Iowa State a competitive advantage over the rest of the Big 12.
Johnson-Lynch also said it has been fun seeing the pin hitters train both left and right side.
"They're all pretty good at both," Johnson-Lynch said. "So we're super flexible, it's hard to keep track of us because you might see Brooke [Andersen] on the left side, and in the next rotation you see her on the right side, and she's as equally as good at both."
Johnson-Lynch said she thinks her team has the potential to throw a lot at teams, and they won't be able to keep track of all the weapons coming at them.
She also said her middles are coming along and is optimistic the Cyclones will be a good offensive team this year. Johnson-Lynch said she thinks their numbers can "shoot up" this year.
On the other side, she said Iowa State isn't a huge team, they're athletic but not tall, so they really have to earn the blocks they get by being good with their eyes and reading the game.
Iowa State also has a lot of depth, and Johnson-Lynch said it can be good but also work against you.
"You're always looking over your shoulder," Johnson-Lynch said. "You're always competing for your spot, so sometimes that can lead to some anxiety. I think our players are in a good spot with that. I think they embrace the competition and recognize it."
With the COVID-19 pandemic still going on, the season will look a little different this year.
There will be no NCAA Tournament this year, and it is a conference-only schedule complete with doubleheaders and no fans allowed at home matches.
Still, the Cyclones are prepping for the upcoming season as they always would, just a little differently than usual.
Johnson-Lynch said since they won't really know their lineup or who is healthy to play until the day of the game, they have to prepare players to play different positions if need be.
"We haven't been ridiculous about it, just smart and strategic," Johnson-Lynch said. "All of our pin hitters are all playing front row and back row, and they're playing both on the left side and right side almost equally, and then our middles, we are having them play a lot of middle but then also quite a bit of right side, and we have not really done that in the past, but [we're] making sure they are comfortable if they are asked to play a right side hit attacker."
Not knowing what your lineup will be until the day of the game also likely means you won't know what the other team's lineup will be until the day of, so that is also something Johnson-Lynch and the Cyclones will have to get used to as the season goes on.
Johnson-Lynch said Texas and Baylor will be top teams again this year and return a lot of players, but there are a lot of unknowns in terms of where the rest of the teams are because of a lot of newcomers.
"Everyone is dangerous and could be good depending on who's healthy," Johnson-Lynch said.
With the doubleheaders being a weekly occurrence in the schedule this year, the Cyclones will have to be physically and mentally prepared to be able to play back-to-back games each weekend.
Johnson-Lynch said they are practicing how that will work physically by having two hard practices in a row and a rest, and they mimic what a week will feel like with the doubleheader. She said the Saturday match is the one that could be the problem if the team is not ready physically.
"I think mentally, they'll be OK," Johnson-Lynch said. "I think it's more the adjustments we have to make from Friday to Saturday."
The other adjustment the Cyclones have to make this year is creating their own energy.
Since they won't have fans at their home matches, Johnson-Lynch said they will have to create energy for themselves and get themselves excited.
"You get a lot of energy from fans really both when you're playing at home and away," Johnson-Lynch said. "It adds a lot of adrenaline to the match. ... You have to find a way and be creative to be able to still celebrate and have energy on your court."
Iowa State will begin the season at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas. The match will be available to watch on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.