In many ways, this hasn't been the kind of season that Iowa State envisioned back in August.
Coming into 2018, the Cyclones appeared to be well-equipped for another NCAA tournament berth. Led by experienced players like seniors Jess Schaben and Grace Lazard, redshirt junior Hali Hillegas and a talented supporting cast, Iowa State entered the season ranked No. 21 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
However, injuries and inconsistency plagued the Cyclones throughout the entire season, to the point where the team had multiple games where it only dressed nine players. Granted, the team made a run to end the year by winning four straight, but a strong finish wasn't enough to overcome the hole Iowa State put itself in.
As a result, the Cyclones missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, despite finishing tied for third place in the Big 12 with a 16-13 record. Although head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch believed her team to be one of the top 64 teams in the country, she wasn't holding her breath at a tournament bid.
"I don't think there was an expectation at all," Johnson-Lynch said. "I really, truly think we're one of the best teams and that we're playing as well as the teams that made it, but we know that RPI [Ratings Percentage Index] is important. That's just the way the committee works."
With everything that went wrong on the court, the players could be forgiven if they wanted to just end an uncharacteristically rough season by Iowa State's standards.
They didn't want the season to end, however. The team received an invite to play in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) after missing the NCAA tournament on Sunday. With NIVC, only in its second year thanks to a reboot after existing from 1989-95, being a far less prestigious tournament, Johnson-Lynch left the decision to participate up to the players.
They jumped at the opportunity.
"When I was talking with the players about whether or not we should play in this, they want to keep playing," Johnson-Lynch said. "That's exactly what you hope for. As as difficult at times as its been this season, they really enjoy playing with each other and getting better."
The decision was made easier by certain factors, such as the fact that Iowa State is the top seed and will host every NIVC game, so long as it continues to win. However, Johnson-Lynch wouldn't have agreed if her players didn't make their desire to continue playing loud and clear.
One of the most vocal supporters was Schaben, who would've otherwise been finished with her Cyclone career had it not been for the NIVC invite. Along with fellow seniors Lazard and Hannah Bailey, Schaben said that wanting extend their careers as long as possible was one of the primary motivators.
"We have a chance to play, otherwise we'd be done," Schaben said. "For me, I don't want to be done and I know Grace and Hannah don't, either, so I'm thankful for another way that we can keep playing."
Although it isn't they way any of them envisioned going out, Schaben said that it didn't matter, so long as the team gets to stay together a little longer.
"It's not exactly the tournament or anything, but at least we're still playing with teammates we love," Schaben said.
With that in mind, the team will attempt to extend their season even further starting Thursday, as the team hosts in-state rival Drake, who finished the season 21-14, at Hilton Coliseum. The winner of that game will play Friday night at Hilton as well, against the winner of the match between Bradley University and Bowling Green.
Though the Cyclones and Bulldogs haven't played in several years, the two teams did scrimmage earlier this spring. Iowa State took that match in a 3-0 sweep, but the Johnson-Lynch said the team isn't taking much stock in what happened over six months ago, when teams didn't even have full rosters.
The teams did have a few common opponents throughout the 2018 season, however. Both teams lost to Iowa this season, but Iowa State swept Kansas and defeated Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Drake, meanwhile, went 0-3 in two matches against UNI and one against the Jayhawks.
Despite the spring result and record against common opponents, Iowa State players still know that they'll be in for a battle against an in-state foe.
"It'll be good competition for us," said sophomore libero Izzy Enna. "They're pretty scrappy, I remember. They can definitely battle with us."
First serve will be at 6:30 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum.