Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Aside from the different jersey, the casual volleyball spectator might not notice the 5-foot-8-inch, blond libero on the Iowa State volleyball team. Cyclone senior Ashley Mass doesn't have a flashy, wild personality some liberos possess.
Feisty liberos throughout the nation might be noticed more than Mass, but that doesn't make them better. Liberos are the often unseen legs that support a team's defense and for the reserved and efficient Mass, her play can be hidden even more.
"I think sometimes Ashley isn't appreciated because she's so unassuming and she's so even-keeled," Iowa State head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said. "She's so efficient and she makes it look easy. You don't tend to notice when someone makes their job look that easy."
While Mass dives, rolls and slides to keep every ball she possibly can in the air, she does it with such efficiency that at times, it seems she's not even breaking a sweat.
"I think you have to watch her to really appreciate what she does and then you can look at the stats and see what she's doing as well," Johnson-Lynch said. "It's very difficult to have a great team without a great libero and Ashley has allowed us to compete at a higher level."
If you take a look around the Big 12, you'll see taking digs from hitters around the conference is anything but easy. Swing after swing though, Mass manages to do it and has become an AVCA First-Team All-American because of her consistent level of aggressiveness. The Muskego, Wisc., native has developed into a player you rely on heavily if you're in Cardinal and Gold on game day.
Mass made shattering the record for most digs in Cyclone history look easy last year and currently boasts 2,174 career digs. The 2,174 digs in her career is 270 more than the next closest Cyclone in the record books. Mass made became the Big 12 record-holder in digs on Oct. 16 against Texas A&M, surpassing former Aggie Angie Lastra who had a career 2,032 and has four more regular season games to extend the gap between her and Lastra.
"I definitely think the fact that she's breaking all these records is a reflection of her consistency because I don't know if you break those records without doing it day in and day out," Johnson-Lynch said. "I think it's just at statement to the fact that she's been able to play at a really high level since she was a freshman."
The once even-quieter Mass has become more vocal in her senior season as a Cyclone. Mass sees herself as more of a physical leader though, and leads Cyclone underclassmen by consistently posting matches with double-digit digs. Mass has posted 10 or more digs in 113 of her 117 matches as Iowa State's starting libero. This season, Mass is averaging 4.81 digs per match, which ranks fourth in the Big 12.
Fifteen times Mass has been named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the week, which is more than any athlete in ISU history. The next closest weekly award winner in Big 12 volleyball has received the honor just six times.
"The awards are awesome," Mass said. "I think it kind of shows all the hard work that I've done through the years and every award I get just shows how I've progressed through the four years I've been here."
The Cyclone co-captain is in a club of her own at Iowa State, as she is the only Cyclone ever to post over 100 matches with 10 or more digs. Being in a club of your own doesn't come by just showing up on game day, it comes from bringing it in the gym in every practice.
"I think she's just as consistent in practice as she is in games," Iowa State sophomore setter Alison Landwehr said. "She definitely works hard after every ball, whether it's a simple drill or full-out playing, you see the same work ethic from her."
Mass says she likes to live by the phrase "you play how you practice," and it has certainly paid off for her as she is the record-holder of most 20-dig matches in Iowa State history at 40, with the next closest Cyclone on the list posting 29 matches. The two-time Big 12 Libero of the Year is just one game away from breaking the ISU record for most 30-dig matches in a career.
Along with her vocal effort, Mass is giving more effort on the defensive end than ever before.
"We're giving her a lot more responsibility this year," Johnson-Lynch said. "It's funny, we talked the other day as a staff, it's almost as if the team gives her one half of the court and is surprised if the ball doesn't come up."
Not only does her play make it easier on her teammates defensively, it has helped Landwehr transition into the starting setter position this season.
"She makes an effort after every ball no matter where it is and even if it's not a perfect play she'll just stick an arm out there and get it," Landwehr said. "She takes a lot of balls that aren't usually assigned to one person; she plays really big out there."
While she's taking all this pressure off her teammates, you'd think a flustered Mass would appear on occasion, but she doesn't. Every match, Mass goes in with an aggressive attitude that if you think you can get to the ball, you will.
"I think she's been so consistent from the moment she got here," Johnson-Lynch said. "I think that her best quality is the fact she plays at a high level but she does it every day and I think one of the hardest skills to develop is a consistent high level of play. You see players do it once or twice a week but to see someone to do it five, six days a week is pretty incredible."
Mass has never missed a game of action for the Cyclones and is always on target, literally. But being on target day in and day out doesn't stop Mass from having a desire to improve.
"She's very coachable, which I think is another great thing about her," Johnson-Lynch said. "Even though she's been here four years and is very experienced, she still wants to learn, she still listens, she still wants to get better, and she's still improving. I think she's that ideal kid that you love to coach that is great, but still wants to get better."
In conference games this season, Mass ranks second in the Big 12 averaging 5.24 digs per set. This season Mass has received three Big 12 Weekly awards, her third coming on Nov. 8 after posting a season-high 31 digs against Missouri.
Even the uncultured volleyball fan can't ignore Mass' staggering accomplishments through her four years as a Cyclone. In the world of volleyball liberos, spunky doesn't always mean superior.