In 2018, Iowa State opened its regular season schedule with a matchup against Ole Miss at the Hilton Coliseum. The home crowd of over 2,000 fans watched as true newcomer Eleanor Holthaus entered the pitch.
Despite playing for a smaller club after high school, expectations were high. Her size and strength impressed the coaching staff during her recruitment, and her natural instincts and decision making presented an opportunity to make an immediate difference in the state of Iowa.
And it all started with that first sentence.
“To be honest I was nervous like a newbie out there. Especially at Hilton, you know, big crowd, big gym — but I was also super excited,” Holthaus said.
She started in three sets that day and helped lead the Cyclones to a 3-0 win over the Rebels. The kick-off at the end of August 2018 was the first of 130 games and a program record for Holthaus for the most games played.
Holthaus’ five-year journey was one of the best in the history of volleyball in the state of Iowa. From her recruiting to her upcoming final against Oklahoma on Wednesday, she has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
During her time at Iowa State, Holthaus led some of Iowa State’s most impressive wins, made unlikely comebacks and delivered consistently in high-pressure situations. She was voted a first-team All-Big-12 three times and has won numerous individual awards.
Their legacy is already cemented, but with one home game and one postseason left, there’s still room for Holthaus to make an even bigger impact.
“She’s one of the best I’ve ever coached,” said head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch.
Holthaus’ legendary career began with a less exciting recruiting. She played most of her high school career as both a setter and hitter. It was her versatility and raw physical potential that first caught the attention of former Iowa State assistant coach Dawn Sullivan.
“I find [Sullivan] I first saw her at a smaller tournament and just said, “I just saw this player who is an amazing athlete, she’s doing a few different things. She bets, she hits; She has such great potential,'” said Johnson-Lynch.
During her senior year at Rocori High School, Holthaus transitioned from being a setter/hitter utility player to a full-time hitter. She finished her high school career with a total of 1,500 kills, 851 digs, and 95 blocks. Holthaus signed with Iowa State and was ranked No. 59 in the Class of 2018.
As soon as she stepped onto campus, Holthaus made the difference. She was an instant starter, helping the Cyclones to an early 12-6 record before conference play began.
Holthaus was not only in the starting eleven, but also made an impression in the games.
In her debut, Holthaus racked up 10 kills en route to a season-opening win over Ole Miss. A strong start ushered in a stellar freshman season.
“She was impressive from the start,” said Johnson-Lynch. “Her numbers were outstanding right off the bat, so it was kind of cool because you knew right away that she would help the team a lot, even as a newcomer with little experience.”
Holthaus helped the state of Iowa bring home a National Invitational Volleyball Championship by defeating Tulane 3-0 in the championship game. But Holthaus and the rest of the Cyclones had set their sights on reaching even greater heights.
The state of Iowa made those strides in 2019, going 17-12 in the regular season and earning a berth in the NCAA Volleyball Championship. A star-studded class performed that season, including future starting player Annie Hatch.
“I just remember really looking up to (Holthaus) and thinking that she is such a great player. And as a sophomore, she held up really well and still had a lot of leadership despite being young,” Hatch said.
Although a successful regular season helped the Cyclones earn a postseason bid, the season ended on a four-game losing streak, including a loss to Creighton in the first round of the tournament.
The Cyclones have been struggling, in part due to a Holthaus injury that saw them miss the final two games of the regular season and resulted in limited game time against Creighton. The season ended in disappointment, but sitting on the bench during the most critical part of the season helped make Holthaus an even better leader.
“[Holthaus has] has seen a lot in her career and has had ups and downs like any athlete, had some injuries and had to battle through some adversity. So she has really good advice and our players know that and they will seek her out,” Johnson-Lynch said.
Holthaus has matured over time and has become an influence on and off the court for the State of Iowa. Not only has she gotten better as a player, Holthaus has also helped those around her to improve.
Because of this, Iowa State has made the NCAA Volleyball Championship twice in its five years, with the possibility of making it three times this season.
“Every year has been a little bit different for me and every year I have taken on a bigger burden. But just this year I was in these moments, I played in these games, I was in these positions,” said Holthaus. “I want to be able to share this experience with my teammates and help them.”
Playtime and experience have made Holthaus a skilled leader, but it’s also helped her develop one of her most iconic traits as a player: her hug factor.
“I think (it comes) just from experience and my passion for the game,” Holtahus said.
Her ability to shine in big moments has helped Iowa State dominate at home this season, regardless of the competition.
In some of the highest-attended volleyball games in the program’s history, Holthaus helped the state of Iowa defeat Iowa, No. 13 Baylor and No. 1 Texas. With every win, Holthaus shone as she led the Cyclones in kills.
“I love intensity, I love high-pressure situations, you know? I love being taken to a place where we have to work really hard and work hard,” Holthaus said.
Those kinds of victories—the breathtaking, electrifying, one-of-a-kind victories—defined the 2022 Iowa season, and it’s all led by Holthaus.
With the regular season drawing to a close and the postseason on the horizon, Holthaus still has time to cite some athletic victories.
But first she must step onto the court at Hilton one last time to take on Oklahoma.
“It means the world to me,” Holthaus said. “I can’t thank Cyclone Nation enough, I can’t thank my coaches, my past teammates and the girls I play with now. I am very grateful for this experience and this opportunity. And of course there’s a lot of emotion behind it ‘one last time’, but I’m very, very grateful.”
The match will not be a victory round for the state of Iowa. The Cyclones are at a critical point in the season where every game matters, and the state of Iowa needs every win it can get.
Before Holthaus can end one of the greatest careers in Iowa volleyball history, she must step onto the court and make an immediate difference.
One last time.