CEDAR FALLS — Welcome to the Missouri Valley Conference, Valparaiso.
The new kids on the block gave the league’s most storied volleyball program all it could handle Saturday night inside the McLeod Center. Valparaiso rallied from a set down and generated one match point in the fourth set, but No. 25 UNI answered the call just in time, prevailing 25-21, 23-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-9, during a 2-hour, 25-minute match front of 2,875 fans.
It was a stiff challenge from a Valparaiso program that moved from the Horizon League into the MVC this fall, and nearly picked up a road win over a ranked UNI program that owns a league record 17 regular-season championships.
Trying to stay in the match down 12-9 in set four, UNI actually had a 62-47 advantage in kills, but also had twice as many attack errors, 28-14. The Panthers (20-5, 10-1 MVC), however, continued to fight and never let Valparaiso (12-11, 4-6) truly get comfortable.
UNI outside hitter Karlie Taylor fought through a team-high 11 attack errors and recorded many of her 19 kills in key situations down the stretch. Middle Piper Thomas led the Panthers with 22 kills, with Taylor crediting her for helping to pull blockers and create one-on-one opportunities on the outside.
For a UNI team that finished with an 82-61 kill advantage with Heather Hook distributing 62 assists, this win was an exercise in patience.
“We know that Valpo is a very scrappy team,” Taylor said. “We came into the match knowing that we were going to need to be patient and sometimes that’s hard. It was hard for us starting out to be patient, but I think we figured it out and I’m really proud of how we battled through them getting crazy good ups.”
Taylor’s defense was also key as she finished with a career-high five solo blocks and joined middle Moriah Johnson for a stuff block assist to fight off Valpo’s lone match point in set four. UNI went on to convert its third set point opportunity on a miscue, and a well-struck Taylor kill put an exclamation point on a 6-2 run to open set five as the Panthers pulled away in the finale.
“I saw some resilience,” UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen said. “To be honest there was some times throughout that match where I would have thought the match would be over and we lost. I thought our kids did a good job of coming back and changing their face and changing their attitude.
“We struggle the most with teams that play really great defense because that’s kind of our thing. We get impatient against that so it was good to be able to see us win against a good team.”