Commentary

Ex-Husker reforms Iowa St. volleyball

Johnson-Lynch leads Cyclones over her alma mater, Nebraska, and into top 10

Updated: October 28, 2009, 1:46 PM ET
By Dave Reed | Special to ESPN.com

As a two-time All-American setter at Nebraska, Christy Johnson played an important role in some of the most memorable victories in the history of Nebraska volleyball, including the win over Texas in the 1995 NCAA championship match that brought the first of three national titles to Lincoln.

She also saw first-hand how difficult it is for visiting teams to win at the Nebraska Coliseum, where standing-room-only crowds can be every bit as intimidating as they are appreciative of great play.

With Johnson directing the NU attack during the 1994 and '95 seasons, the Huskers compiled an impressive 32-2 record at the Coliseum, falling only to Penn State and Stanford.

Christy Johnson-Lynch and Kaylee Manns
Iowa State Athletics Communications Former All-American Christy Johnson-Lynch, left, is a dream coach for settlers such as Kaylee Manns.

On Oct. 21, now-Christy Johnson-Lynch was part of another memorable victory at the Coliseum, this time leading Iowa State as head coach to its first win against the Huskers, coming back from a 2-sets-to-1 deficit for its first victory in either 75 or 76 tries against Nebraska (there's a discrepancy regarding the teams' playing in 1976).

"I thought athletically we could hang with them," Johnson-Lynch said. "But that almost becomes a nonfactor when you're playing in the Coliseum because there is so much pressure with the crowd and the tradition, and the fact that we had never beaten them.

"We talked a lot about the crowd going into the match. I felt like our team really did a good job of staying composed because the crowd really got into it. You love to play there, but teams usually leave really disappointed."

Since Johnson-Lynch's arrival prior to the start of the 2005 campaign, Iowa State has developed a reputation for being successful on the road, especially during the postseason. In 2007, the Cyclones swept Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament second-round match in Madison; last season, they knocked Minnesota out in the second round in Minneapolis and then upset Oregon in Austin, Texas.

"While the fans would identify with this [beating Nebraska], leading a team to the Elite Eight is a more remarkable achievement," said former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit, Johnson-Lynch's mentor. "You can get lucky and win a match, but to get in the tournament, then get to the regionals and then get to the finals of the regionals, that's something special."

Despite ISU's success in the NCAA tournament, many people around the country were surprised to learn Iowa State joined Colorado, Kansas State, Missouri and Texas as the only Big 12 programs to win at Nebraska, a total of six victories since the conference was formed in 1996.

Those closest to the Iowa State program, however, sensed during the past two seasons the Cyclones were on the verge of being in a position to contend with Nebraska and Texas for the top spot in the Big 12 standings. The key to ISU's turnaround is its improved athleticism.

"We continue to get more athletic with each recruiting class," Johnson-Lynch said. "I'm excited about the players we have coming in and the ones we are talking to."

Iowa State's recruiting strategy is to identify athletic players who are a little under the radar, but can develop into top-level talent. But one position where the Cyclones can go head-to-head with any program for a recruit is at setter.

"Every program has to find its niche," Johnson-Lynch said. "One of the things we've identified is the fact that there's a head coach at Iowa State who was an All-American setter at Nebraska. My experience allows us to go out and recruit a higher-level setter than a similar program would."

Senior Kaylee Manns is living proof that ISU is a top destination for aspiring setters. Johnson-Lynch was recruiting Manns while she was an assistant coach at Wisconsin, and when she took the job at Iowa State, it didn't take long for Manns to decide to follow her to Ames.

"I had the opportunity to train with one of the best setters ever," said Manns, who earned second-team All-American honors in 2008. "How could you turn that down?

Straube
Iowa State Athletics Communication Jamie Straube grew up a Nebraska fan, but chose to play under Johnson-Lynch at Iowa State.

"She's an incredible person and player. She was a two-time All-American setter. What more could anybody ask for? She trained me and helped me work on my technique. I owe everything to her."

Johnson-Lynch is in the perfect situation to recruit the state of Nebraska and the Midwest, which produces as good of players as any region in the country.

"Christy is absolutely in the right place for her to succeed because she understands the culture," Pettit said. "She grew up in Millard, near Omaha. She was a great player in the Big 12. She has a reputation that helps her in that area.

"Had she begun coaching in say the Big Ten or the Southeast, certainly people would have known who she was, but it might have taken her a little longer."

The Iowa State roster includes four players from Nebraska, including freshman middle blocker Jamie Straube, who grew up a Huskers fan. Even though she is too young to remember Johnson as a player, she is the perfect age to benefit from Johnson-Lynch's experience as a player and a coach.

"When it gets down to the tough points, [Johnson-Lynch] has confidence in you as a player," said Straube, who had 11 kills and a hand in eight blocked shots in the victory over Nebraska. "She keeps everyone relaxed because our team plays so much better when we're just playing and not thinking too much about the game."

With only two seniors on this year's roster and another athletic recruiting class on the horizon, Johnson-Lynch is confident Iowa State has been building the proper foundation to contend for a Big 12 title on a consistent basis.

"I've seen teams kind of be a flash in the pan, make a great run for a couple of years and then kind of disappear," Johnson-Lynch said. "I really want to sustain a great program over years and years. I don't want it to be one year we had a great Elite Eight run, one year we beat Nebraska and then disappear. I really want to work hard to sustain the program, and I believe it's possible."

Not only did the victory over Nebraska attract some much-deserved publicity, it helped the Cyclones climb to No. 9 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, the highest ranking in ISU history.

And when Iowa State defeated Texas Tech on Saturday, the Cyclones tied the school record with their eighth consecutive victory and maintained their one-match lead over the Huskers for second place in the Big 12 standings, behind Texas.

"I have all the confidence in the world they can keep the program going in the right direction," Manns said. "There is so much momentum, positive energy and support around the program, I don't see how it could take a step back."

Even though Iowa State's latest boost in prominence has come at the expense of the program he built into a national power, Pettit is proud of what his protégé has accomplished.

"It's certainly been as good a turnaround in women's volleyball as I've seen," Pettit said. "She's everything we want in someone associated with Nebraska volleyball. And her success at Iowa State speaks a lot about Nebraska volleyball. She's just a great person and a great coach."

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.