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Malcom in the middle

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Schaller native and 'Cuse transfer hopes to steer Cyclone netters to the Sweet 16

If Jen Malcom doesn't have ice in her veins, she at least has the ice to begin with.

The Cyclones 6-foot-1 junior middle blocker partakes in that most peculiar of sports rituals: She consumes three cups of ice during film sessions and continues chomping on the sidelines when she comes out of a match.

"It started at Syracuse," the former Schaller-Crestland High standout said. "My teammates give me a hard time; they always tell me I'm crunching too loud or something. It's just something I started in college and I've always done it since."

Malcom and the rest of the Iowa State University volleyball team are looking to maintain a cool composure while pursuing the school's third-ever and second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Malcom has her own personal challenge, too. She's looking to reassert herself as an elite blocker after redshirting last season. Malcom spent her first two years playing in the Big East at Syracuse (N.Y.).

"I expect Jen will have a breakout year," ISU third-year coach Christy Johnson said on the team's official Web site. "She is very quick and she hits a quick set in front of the setter as fast as anyone I have coached. In order to stop Jen you have to commit on her; she is just that fast."

The Schaller native earned all-state honors her final two seasons for the Wildcats in 2002 and 2003 and played club ball for Nebraska Elite before making an immediate impact for the Orange.

Malcom led her team in all blocking categories her freshman year at 'Cuse, with 28 solos and 98 block assists in 32 matches. As a sophomore, Malcom helped the Orange to a 25-10 (11-3 Big East) record while flooring 1.86 kills a game and 1.33 blocks, ranking her fifth in the league in the latter category.

She wanted a change from the small town life that Schaller offered, but since transferring to ISU in 2006, she's discovered Ames makes a pretty good middle ground.

That, and her friends and family can now see her play more than a few matches per season.

"I love it here. Great coaches, my teammates are just awesome," Malcom said. "It was just about getting closer to home."

The 'Clones, who open the season Sunday, Aug. 26 at Hilton Coliseum against Middle Tennessee, started practice Aug. 9 and are in the middle of two-a-days right now. On a typical day they'll go from 9-11:30 a.m., eat, and get after it again from 2:30-5 p.m. They're also involved in team-building and community activities, such as visiting retirement home residents. Malcom confessed that a year ago all the workouts seemed a little tough, knowing she'd never get on the court in a real match, but she kept things in perspective.

"I put in my time, knowing I'd have an opportunity for two more years to play," she said. "After I transferred, I always knew I wanted to keep playing."

The biggest difference between high school and Division I volleyball is the pace, said Malcom.

"The play of game is a lot faster in college. Your work ethic has to be a lot higher," she said. "It's kind of like a job: you have to give it your all. In high school, you can go out for other sports, but in college you mainly have one sport to pursue. It's pretty endless. Practices. Weights four times a week. It's basically year-round. I knew going into college sports you have to give it your all. I was brought up to pursue what you want and have a good attitude.

"I'm happy with where I am right now."

A small middle by Big 12 norms, Malcom said she needs to improve on her passing, and that blocking remains her favorite aspect of the game.

"(The key to blocking) is basically the form you have," she said. "It isn't just height and leaping ability. You have to be really strong up there and have quick hands. It's not getting knocked back or faked out. A lot of it is timing.

"It's studying the setter you're going to go against and knowing what she's going to do in certain situations."

The Cyclones, ranked 33rd in D-I in the preseason CSTV/AVCA coaches poll, are projected by the Big 12's coaches to place sixth in the league behind No. 1-ranked Nebraska, No. 4 Texas, No. 20 Missouri, Texas A&M and Colorado, in that order. Sixth place is the highest preseason selection in school history for ISU, which took fourth in the Big 12 last year (12-8) and went 21-11 overall while advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

AVCA Honorable Mention All-American Erin Boeve, a senior who played middle blocker last year, drives the Cyclone attack and is one of three returning starters along with sophomore setter Kaylee Manns, and both right side hitter Lauren Cummings and defensive specialist Laura Cady, who return as seniors after splitting time in the starting lineup last year.

ISU lost four full-time starters - including two outside hitters - to graduation, so Johnson bumped Boeve from the middle to the outside to create more depth at the position.

While the Cyclones have the least amount of depth at middle blocker, they do have experience and talent at the position.

"We did the adjustment during the spring," said Malcom. "It actually worked a lot better so we can move two more people to the middle (Malcom and sophomore Diane Kieger) and then have a great player on the outside."

Malcom doesn't want to just get to the NCAA Tournament, she wants to win while she's there.

"(The selection committee looks) at who you play in the preseason. If we win a lot of preseason games and then do well in the conference, I think we can make the tourney," she said. "Our goal is to make the Sweet 16."

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