CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s volleyball program has been in this position before, walking away from the previous two selection shows with an at-large ticket into the NCAA Tournament.
Still, that didn’t make the seats inside the team locker room any more comfortable Sunday night.
It wasn’t until the final quarter of the bracket was revealed before UNI’s name finally popped onto the television screen and cheers erupted. UNI (26-8) will open tournament play against Louisville (24-6) at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Minnesota. The host Golden Gophers are the No. 7 overall seed and will face North Dakota with the winner playing the UNI-Louisville winner.
“Every year it’s a blessing,” UNI coach Bobbi Petersen said after her program secured its 21st NCAA bid all-time. “It’s really cool to see a whole year’s body of work come to this.”
Heather Hook, a fifth-year senior setter, has been a part of two teams that didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament before now qualifying each of her final three years.
“It means everything,” Hook said. “I was sick all day thinking about it because you don’t know.
“Just the culmination of everything, my fifth year here, and getting one more shot at going as far as we can, that just means the world to me.”
While UNI didn’t reach its goal of securing an automatic NCAA berth, following a third loss of the season to Missouri State in Saturday’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship match, the Panthers certainly proved they can compete with the nation’s elite through a successful non-conference stretch.
UNI’s résumé for this NCAA bid included three wins over teams seeded among the top 16 in this year’s tournament field, a collection of quality victories that were unmatched by most bubble teams.
The Panthers defeated Big Ten Conference co-champion Nebraska, Pac-12 runner-up USC and Iowa State, the third-place finisher out of the Big 12, while also pushing a Kentucky team that entered last week with the nation’s No. 1 RPI to five sets.
“I thought that our résumé was probably the best it’s been in all of the years that we would be considered,” Petersen said. “We felt good about a lot of the things we did this season to be in a position to be highly considered. Until you see it, you just don’t really know.”
IOWA STATE TO HOST: Iowa State made the NCAA Tournament for the 12th straight season and will host matches Friday and Saturday at Hilton Coliseum.
The Cyclones (21-6) face Ivy League champ Princeton (18-7) Friday at 7 p.m. after Wisconsin and Marquette meet at 4 p.m. The winners square off Saturday at 6:30 p.m.