MINNEAPOLIS — Heather Hook quickly learned to embrace the role of a fearless leader.
Competing in a natural leadership position as a setter two years older than everyone else on Northern Iowa’s volleyball roster, Hook didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
“When you graduate five seniors, a lot of that leadership goes as well,” UNI coach Bobbi Petersen said, reflecting on what Hook has meant to her program following Saturday night’s loss at Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “She had to really step out of her comfort zone and be what her team needed this year, and was willing to do it. It look a little prodding at times, but I’m really proud of her.”
A Grundy Center native who waited two years in the program before getting her opportunity to crack the starting lineup, Hook finished her third season in the rotation as the Missouri Valley Conference’s Setter of the Year. Her 4,288 career assists rank fourth all-time at UNI, and she guided the Panthers to three consecutive at-large NCAA Tournament bids following a rare two-year absence from the big dance.
Beyond the numbers, was the confidence and poise this setter instilled within a team that broke three newcomers into the starting rotation and saw a handful of players take on larger roles by appearing in the majority of UNI’s matches.
During the opening month of the season, UNI defeated three of the 16 teams that remain in this year’s NCAA Tournament (Missouri, USC, Nebraska). The Panthers also won took two sets against a Kentucky team that reached the regional semifinals, in addition to winning a set against Minnesota during Saturday’s season-ending loss.
“I was really proud of how our team played in the second set (against Minnesota),” Hook said afterwards. “I think we really embodied our goal of playing one point at a time, and that’s something we’ve been fighting for all season. I’m really proud of how the team has grown this year and I’m really excited to see what they do next year.”
Finding ways to extend rallies and wear down opposition was something this year’s Panthers embraced as much as any team in program history.
Libero Kendyl Sorge finished the season with 625 digs and outside hitters Bri Weber and Karlie Taylor added 514 and 475 for a UNI team that broke a single-season digs record that had stood since 1987 with 2,581 digs.
UNI also led the nation with an average of 15.24 kills per set. The team’s 5,368 attack attempts were a program record with Taylor’s 1,373 and Weber’s 1,348 ranking 1-2 on the all-time individual list.
Taylor’s emergence as a dominant weapon complemented Jaydlin Seehase, Moriah Johnson and Taylor Hedges who gained experience as regulars in the lineup. Next season could be a special one with Sorge, Weber and Piper Thomas entering their fourth year as starters.
Hook’s role as a setter and leader, however, won’t be easy to fill.
“A lot of people look at it as, ‘OK you return everybody but Heather,’” Petersen said. “But when you lose one or you lose five, I think it’s all the same. You have holes to fill.
“Heather not only runs our offense, she brings a lot more to the court. I think the biggest thing is her ability to step out of her comfort zone this year and be the leader the team needed. ... She’s going to go on to do great things in life and I’m so proud of her.”
While every senior in the nation would give anything for one more match, Hook could look back on her career with pride.
“Going to a school like UNI, I think there’s a lot of people that doubt the mid-major schools,” Hook said. “I think we’ve proven that we can play with anybody in the country. I want everyone that is left to keep that mindset and know that they can play with anybody.”