CEDAR FALLS — Durable windows may be the top selling point within Karlie Taylor’s childhood home.
Before the University of Northern Iowa volleyball team’s most powerful outside hitter was blasting shots at Missouri Valley Conference opponents, Taylor honed her skills by targeting the roof of her house from the back deck.
“When I tried to jump serve, occasionally I hit the window,” Taylor recalls. “My dad would yell at me because if I broke the window that would be a pretty bad deal. ... I didn’t break any windows, thank goodness, but I was pretty close.”
That aggressive swing eventually caught the attention of UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen, elevating the youngest of five siblings from a four-year high school difference maker at Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont into an NCAA Division I prospect. In her first season as a full-rotation collegiate starter, Taylor ranks among UNI’s leaders with an average of 3.84 kills per set and 3.85 digs per set.
The sophomore outside hitter will be a valuable contributor when the Panthers open MVC Tournament play in the semifinal round 7:30 p.m. Friday at Illinois State.
“You talk about a big gun, a heavy arm, a big swinger and she definitely catches your eye,” Petersen said.
It certainly didn’t take long for UNI setter Heather Hook to realize the physicality Taylor could bring to this year’s team.
“On the roster it says she’s 5-foot-11, but she says she’s really 6-foot,” Hook related. “I think she plays way bigger than 6-foot. She jumps really well and the speed at which she can hit the ball is really impressive.
“There’s some people who can hit the ball fast and some people who hit the ball hard, and I think she does a little bit of both. If you’re not ready, you’re not going to get to her ball because it comes at you so fast. When you do dig her, it’s like, ‘OK, I just got hit by a bowling ball.’”
After serving a part-time role as a true freshman, playing in 47 of UNI’s 122 sets, Taylor spent the spring season working with Panther assistant Kim Davis on developing her full shot-making arsenal.
“I’ve always been one who wants the big kill, swing as hard as you can,” Taylor said. “We’ve been working on hitting to spots more, using offspeed and not always going for the straight-down kill every time.”
Taylor credits Bri Weber, a third-year contributor at her position, as a valuable role-model who demonstrates the ideal time to mix in offspeed attacks. During the non-conference portion of UNI’s schedule, Taylor served notice that she wasn’t intimidated by anyone across the net — tallying 28 kills on .333 hitting in a five-set loss to the AVCA’s No. 6 Kentucky, and matching the team lead with 20 and 15 kills during wins over No. 13 USC and No. 5 Nebraska.
“When she gets fired up and wants to put the ball away, I can hear it in her voice and I want to set her,” Hook said. “The confidence she has in herself and the mindset she has to go up and end a rally is the biggest jump she’s made.”
Added Taylor, “If you don’t have confidence, you feel very small. Having confidence I can find a way to get a kill is a huge deal. That also comes with Heather giving me great sets and (middle) Piper (Thomas) pulling the block for me. It’s a whole big team system.”
Beyond Taylor’s transformation into a more well-rounded hitter, she’s become a complete player. The Eddyville native is one of UNI’s rare jump servers, a reliable passer and someone Petersen says is one of the team’s top blockers in terms of technique.
“It takes a lot to be able to have the workload that she has,” Petersen said. “We put a heavy load on a few of our players and she’s one of them.”
Growing up admiring her sisters, 10 and 12 years older, Taylor’s passion for the sport of volleyball has been lifelong. Her older sisters each played volleyball at Central College, and her two older brothers competed in football at William Penn.
“I’d go to their high school practices and stay after and my sisters would hit balls at me,” Karlie recalls. “I was five, six years old, but it would still be something I loved.”
Now Taylor is helping to inspire another generation of athletes within her family. Her nieces are among the team’s youngest and most loyal supporters.
“They look up to the Panther volleyball team and they draw pictures for us,” Taylor said. “They are big volleyball fans. They’re already practicing their platform and serving. It’s a lot of fun.”
MVC OUTLOOK: UNI (25-7, 15-3) enters this year’s MVC Tournament as the No. 2 seed and will face either Valparaiso or tournament host Illinois State in the semifinal round.
“We’re either playing a team that beat us in five sets (Illinois State) or took us to five at home (Valparaiso),” Petersen said. “For us, it’s extremely motivating to have that competition right away and have the ability to clean up some things we maybe didn’t like the last time we played these teams.”
UNI leads the MVC with 16 tournament titles all-time, but the Panthers haven’t reached the finals since 2014 and haven’t won a tournament championship since 2011.