AMES — The mountain’s mostly climbed.
The peak’s in sight.
Just a handful of small, arduous steps remain in the Iowa State volleyball team’s remarkable trek from utter obscurity to the rarified air occupied by the nation’s elite.
But no one’s asking, ‘Are we there yet?’
There’s too much left to do — inch-by-inch, with every pass, dig and kill.
“I’ve heard a lot of coaches tell me it’s easier getting there than staying there and I think that is true,” said Cyclone coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, whose team is coming off its second NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance in four seasons. “One thing we’ve learned the last couple years is not to take anything for granted.”
That’s a lesson gleaned, in large part, from a first-round tournament exit in 2010.
It was a rare postseason misstep for ISU under Johnson-Lynch, who in seven seasons has turned around a program long-mired at the bottom of the Big 12..
The 2012 season opens Aug. 24 against Cincinnati at the Comcast Lady Vol Classic in Knoxville, Tenn.
“We have another step,” said former Kennedy star, Kristen Hahn, a junior and reigning Big 12 libero of the year. “I told myself last year, and after the spring game when we lost to Nebraska, we need to be a top-five team and I think we can be with this team we have coming in. We can contend for a national championship and be right there, so I’m really excited.”
Last season ended on a sour, but nearly soaring note.
The Cyclones dispatched NCAA regional host Minnesota in the Sweet 16, then pushed Florida State to five sets in the Elite Eight.
Hahn had 25 digs in the loss.
ISU — which returns several key players, including middle blocker Jamie Straube, Hahn, setter Alison Landwehr and outside hitter Victoria Hurtt —fell a few painful points short, losing 15-11 in the closing frame.
“Being in that environment, being so close — ‘You’re like, all right, this feels this good to play in the Elite Eight, the Final Four’s got to be even better,” said Straube, a senior and two-time all-Big 12 selection who hit .344 against conference foes last season. “Just to get a little taste of what that’s like is more motivation than losing because we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re right there. We’re competing with some of the best teams in the country.’”
A deep freshman class that includes former Williamsburg star Mackenzie Bigbee, a right-side hitter, enhances the Cyclones hopes to rise to the top of the Big 12.
“Just a beast,” Johnson-Lynch said of Bigbee. “And that’s a compliment. Really athletic. Big presence at the net. Can terminate. Big blocker.”
Texas again poses the biggest obstacle to a league title.
ISU is picked second to the Longhorns in the preseason.
Another seemingly small step — From No. 2 to No. 1 — would entail knocking them off.
Emphasis on the seemingly part.
“They’re still going to be really athletic and really talented,” Johnson-Lynch said.
So are the Cyclones, which won one conference match the year before Johnson-Lynch arrived.
Last season they went 13-3 in the league, with two losses coming to Texas.
“It’s such a great thing to be a part of,” Hahn said, of the program’s resurgence.
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