CEDAR FALLS | First, they were out. Then they were in. Then they were out. Then they were in again ...

That's just what the University of Northern Iowa women's soccer team went through on its way into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last Thursday at Loyola.

First, the Panthers lost control of their own destiny when they dropped a 1-0 game to the Ramblers. Coupled with Indiana State's 2-0 lead over Illinois State, that meant UNI was out of the tournament.

"At the end of the game we had a lot of tears and a lot of down people," head coach James Price related Monday at UNI's weekly coaches' luncheon. "It was tough."

Then, during the Panthers' postgame stretch, Illinois State tied its game to give UNI a flicker of hope, then went ahead 3-2, which put UNI in the tournament. About 30 seconds later, Indiana State scored to tie the game and knock the Panthers out.

"Literally, as we're walking off the field to see parents and off to get a shower, Illinois State scored to make it 4-3 and there were only 80 seconds left in that game, so we were in again."

Given that second chance, UNI made the most of it with a 2-1 win Sunday at Missouri State.

"We had a bit of a chip on our shoulder," said Price. "We talked about that ... that teams didn't really respect us that much."

Now the Panthers are in the semifinals where they will play tournament final four host Evansville Friday at 6 p.m. The championship match is Sunday afternoon.

"I think this group thinks that they can win this tournament this weekend," said Price. "That's their final goal.

"We're definitely going to go down to Evansville to win the game, win the tournament. We feel like the four teams that are there ... we tied Drake, we beat Evansville, we played Loyola very closely, so we feel like we belong there and we feel like we can do some damage there.

"We're going to have to play our best, but we certainly feel like if we can do that then we have a very good chance."

VOLLEYBALL: A weekend sweep of Illinois State and Indiana State kept UNI (15-11 overall, 9-4 Missouri Valley Conference) squarely in the battle for one of the top two spots in the league standings and the first-round tournament byes that go with those positions.

The Panthers can take a giant step this week when they hit the road for matches against MVC leader Wichita State and Missouri State.

"Arguably, probably the hardest road swing," said assistant coach Kalani Mahi, who filled in for head coach Bobbi Petersen Monday. "We're hopeful, obviously, that we can continue to put ourselves in a position to potentially get that regular-season championship. However, we're going to need some help from some other teams.

"We're in the stretch run right now, and our kids are playing hard and playing well."

In other volleyball news, UNI freshman Piper Thomas of Jesup has been named the MVC's Freshman of the Week for the second time this season. Thomas averaged 3.29 kills per set, hit .271 and average 1.0 blocks per set. She had 13 kills and three blocks against Illinois State and 10 kills and four blocks against Indiana State.

CROSS COUNTRY: Head coach Dave Paulsen's teams finished about where predicted at the Missouri Valley cross country championships. However, Paulsen had higher expectations than eighth place for his men's squad and seventh for the women.

"I thought with the team we had and the way we'd been running we could get in the middle of the pack," Paulsen said of his men's squad, which did get career-best efforts from Trai Bunch (22nd) and Ben Fick (28th). "However, we did not execute the way we had been throughout the entire season."

Kelsey Kirchoff earned all-conference honors with an 11th-place run for the women's team.

"We just couldn't ever seem to get the team on the same page throughout the season," said Paulsen. "It was one of those years where we just had some untimely injuries as the year went on and just couldn't quite get everyone to full strength."

Paulsen said UNI will take a group of runners to the NCAA regional meet in Lawrence, Kansas.

WOMEN'S SWIMMING AND DIVING: Nebraska defeated UNI 150-88 in a Friday dual meet, but Panther head coach Doug Humphrey was looking beyond the final score.

"A successful weekend," Humphrey proclaimed. "The points probably don't say as much, but the way we competed and the way we moved forward in our season this weekend was pretty remarkable.

"We made a big step forward because Nebraska's a team that every year we've gone against them they've just come in and basically gone first, second, third and we've kind of just swim behind them the whole time.

"It was a competitive meet. We didn't win many events, but we were right in the mix in almost all of them."

UNI did get a win from Molly Lembezeder in the 50 freestyle.

The Panthers are scheduled to host Loras and Iowa Central Friday at 5 p.m.

WRESTLING: UNI wrestling will host a Fan Fest Friday at the West Gym at 6:45 p.m. Panther fans will have a chance to meet the 2015-16 team and coaching staff. The event is free and open to the public.


Sports Editor

Sports Editor for The Courier

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