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Thursday, November 29, 2012
Behind libero, Iowa St. has storybook second half

By Mechelle Voepel

During a match this season, Iowa State libero Kristen Hahn got a dig on one of the biggest hitters in the country. And a thought flashed through her mind: "Gee, that ball actually wasn't hit as hard as I thought it would be."

Uh, yeah, that would be the perception of Hahn and that intrepid breed of fearless players known as defensive specialists. To the average person, the ball would have looked -- and felt -- like a missile. But to someone like Hahn, who for the second consecutive season was the Big 12 Libero of the Year, it's like, "Whatever. Hit me with your best shot."

"I guess I always was known as the scrappy one," Hahn said, looking back on her multisport past growing up in Iowa that led to Division I volleyball. "I'm not afraid to get hit anywhere, even in the face. Whatever it takes, as long as the ball is up. That is my motto. All that matters is that we can get another touch on it."

Indeed, keeping the ball up (in play) against the huge hitters is part of the psychological edge a player like Hahn provides her team. The kills are fun to watch … but so are the "how did she do that?" digs.

"It can have a huge effect on momentum," Hahn said. "And you can hear it in the crowd, too, sometimes. Maybe if a hitter really has a good hit, and I can still get even just a little touch on it to save it, you hear the gasps and yells.

"When you can get it to where the hitters are trying to change their tendencies to avoid you, I think that can affect them."

As the NCAA women's volleyball tournament gets under way Thursday night, it's important to keep in mind just how crucial defense is in volleyball. Players such as Hahn -- or USC's Natalie Hagglund, or Michigan State's Kori Moster, or Kentucky's Stephanie Klefot, or any of the other top liberos in the game -- can have a large impact on momentum in a sport that's so tied to momentum.

Hahn, a junior from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had 554 digs this season while winning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honor eight times. She had 30 digs in the Cyclones' regular-season finale victory last Saturday over league champion Texas, which spoiled the Longhorns' perfect Big 12 record.

Now, the Cyclones are one of 16 squads that will host the NCAA early rounds, which run through Saturday. (The volleyball tournament has 64 teams, but only the top 16 are seeded.)

Iowa State, the No. 15 seed, plays Thursday night against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. The other first-round match there is Cal vs. North Carolina, with the winners meeting Friday for a trip to the regional in Berkeley, Calif.

And to think, just two months ago, Iowa State was 8-6. The Cyclones were not thinking then about hosting in the NCAA tournament. They just wanted to make the field.

But since then, Iowa State has gone 12-1, with the lone loss being 3-2 at Texas on Oct. 17. After that, the Cyclones were determined they weren't going to give up any more ground, and they haven't. They even avenged the loss to Texas with the aforementioned win last weekend in a match that went the distance in Ames.

"We learned a lot about our chemistry and charisma as a team," Hahn said of the tough early losses. "There was a time when everyone was kind of worried that the season wasn't going to pan out as we had hoped. But I think we were just getting to know each other.

"We were undefeated in the second half of Big 12 play, and we knew we needed to do that to get to 20 wins after that loss to Texas."

The Cyclones enter the NCAA tournament with confidence born not just from a 10-match winning streak, but also the fact they beat two teams that are seeded in the top four: No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Nebraska.

The latter is the alma mater of Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, and it's been her goal to get the Cyclones to the program's first volleyball Final Four. They had a good chance last year, but lost a 3-2 heartbreaker in the Elite Eight to Florida State.

This year, should Iowa State win its first two matches, it's likely -- unless there is a colossal upset -- No. 2 seed Stanford would be the Cyclones' Sweet 16 foe. Daunting, to say the least.

But Iowa State doesn't have to cross that bridge yet. For now, the Cyclones will just focus on trying to get two victories on their home court in Hahn's home state.

"This year," Hahn said, "has been one of the most memorable years for Iowa State volleyball, for sure."