AMES — Iowa’s greatest collegiate volleyball rivalry added another exciting chapter Tuesday night in front of 2,968 fans inside Hilton Coliseum.
In a recent series of matches that have read more like in-depth novels, Northern Iowa once again found a way to prevail.
UNI picked up an additional signature win to its challenging non-conference slate and handed No. 19 Iowa State its first loss of the season, 25-21, 21-25, 25-23, 17-25, 15-11.
It marks the fourth time in the last five years these two teams have gone the distance.
One year ago, UNI won an epic 3-hour battle inside Cedar Falls’ McLeod Center that ended up becoming the longest match of the 2016 NCAA Division I season. This contest lasted 2 hours, 30 minutes with the Panthers (8-3) snapping a three-match road losing streak at Iowa State (7-1).
“We actually said at the start of the fifth it wouldn’t be an Iowa State match if we didn’t go to five sets,” said Heather Hook, UNI’s fifth-year senior setter.
Hook spread out 43 assists to a balanced collection of attackers, quickly establishing veteran middle Piper Thomas (17 kills), along with outsides Karlie Taylor and Bri Weber (14 kills apiece). That helped free up freshman Jaydlin Seehase for 11 kills on a team-best .320 hitting as UNI outlasted a scrappy Iowa State defense that made 92 digs to go with 13 stuff blocks.
“That was a big plus for us on our side and a huge question mark going in — were we going to be able to be patient enough against a big block and a scrappy defense?” UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen acknowledged. “We have some young players out there that you’re not really sure if the patience is going to be there.
“I think Heather did a good job of putting people in the best possible situation. JJ (Seehase) had a great night for us, but I also think Heather put her in some really good situations.”
While Iowa State entered the match averaging an imposing 3.12 blocks per set, UNI stood just as tall on this night. Thomas finished with two solo blocks and three assists for a Panther team that was nearly even at the net with the Cyclones holding just a slim 13-12 advantage.
UNI was paced by libero Kendyl Sorge’s 20 digs and out-hit Iowa State, .177-.156. Samara West, the Cyclones’ leading attacker on the season, was held to eight kills and made 10 errors.
Grace Lazard and Jess Schaben paced the hosts with 12 kills apiece as coach Christy Johnson-Lynch continues to search for more players to step up and deliver transition kills to support a strong defense led by libero and Charles City native Hali Hillegas’ 25 digs on this night.
“We’re really good defensively, we’re blocking balls but we are not offensively where we need to be,” Johnson-Lynch said.
As for this rivalry, Iowa State’s coach added, “It’s a great rivalry. I think it’s great for the state of Iowa. We always learn a lot after we play them. ... A very well-coached team and they win by battling and playing great defense and fighting and that’s always fun to play against. It’s disappointing when you lose to it, but you’ve got to respect it.”
Rallying to tie the match for a second time after recording 15 kills to four errors in set four, it appeared as though Iowa State had momentum. UNI, however, took control of the fifth with a 4-0 run that included a pair of Thomas kills.
When Iowa State cut the deficit to 11-10, Thomas added her final kill on the first sideout swing. UNI won four of the last five points with Weber converting the second match point opportunity.
“We always like to call the five set matches a street fight,” Thomas said. “It’s a gritty battle and it comes down to who wants it more and who is willing to put in the effort to work for that fifth set because everyone is tired.”
This match continues to showcase the gains Iowa has made as a volleyball state. It marked the first time in recent history UNI’s entire starting rotation was filled with former Iowa high school volleyball players.
“I think it’s just really cool to show the sport of volleyball growing in Iowa,” Hook said. “There’s a ton of really good volleyball players that have come through in the time that I’ve been in middle school, high school and now college.
“A lot of talent in the area and I think our team definitely speaks to that. I think it’s really cool and we’re homegrown, we’re local and we’re good.”
Following UNI’s worst loss of the season Saturday at UMKC, along with a shaky Monday practice, Petersen was pleased to see her team quickly regroup.
“There was a lot of good communication about what we’re going to be about this year,” Petersen said. “The hard part is it’s just a lot of talk. Putting that kind of thing into action is what’s important for us.
“I thought our kids did a really good job of building trust in each other. I was glad to see the way we came out against a very good Iowa State team.”