CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa volleyball has embraced the fight during each of the program’s previous two NCAA tournament appearances.
On Friday, the Panthers will look to land the final kill when UNI (26-8) returns to the University of Minnesota to open tournament play against ACC co-champion Louisville (24-6).
This marks the third consecutive NCAA appearance for a UNI team that extended each of its previous two opening-round matches to five sets before ultimately losing the race to 15.
“Those of us who have played in those two really tough five-set heartbreaking defeats, I think we’re all really fired up to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year,” UNI junior middle Piper Thomas said. “We have our eyes set on goals past the first round. We’re all motivated and it’s going to take a good team effort.”
Indeed, UNI’s players have made no intention in hiding their lofty vision of making the program’s first Elite Eight appearance. It was first brought up during the team’s mid-August media day.
After surviving last year’s five-set match with UNI in the opening round, Creighton won two more five setters to become the only team outside the top 16 seeds to reach the 2016 Elite Eight.
Fifth-year senior and Missouri Valley Conference Setter of the Year Heather Hook still has faith her squad can make a similar run. Big wins in non-conference play have revealed UNI won’t be intimidated by any of its postseason opponents.
The Panthers own wins over the NCAA’s No. 5 seed Nebraska, No. 10 USC and No. 14 Iowa State. UNI also went five sets with a No. 4 seeded Kentucky team that owns a win over No. 2 seed Florida. Nebraska swept No. 1 seed Penn State on the road in their only encounter.
“I have the utmost faith in our team,” Hook said. “I think we proved that we can play with anybody in the country. There’s not a team that showed up on that screen (selection Sunday) that I’m scared to play.”
While UNI still has plenty of confidence, three losses to Missouri State — including a setback in Saturday’s MVC title match — have revealed the Panthers have plenty to clean up in order to earn their first NCAA tournament win since an opening round sweep over No. 25 Kansas State in 2012.
Coach Bobbi Petersen saw her team take a step back on defense from the semifinal to final round of the MVC tournament, and believes that fed into the offense where UNI has averaged eight attack errors per set during its most recent two straight-set losses to Missouri State.
In total, UNI has one more attack error than its opposition throughout the season despite a win-loss record 18 games above .500.
While Petersen has been more prone to forgive aggressive miscues in the past, she knows it’s area that must improve this weekend. It starts with finding more weapons to complement first team all-conference selections Thomas, Karlie Taylor and Bri Weber.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we have to eliminate some of those errors and we have to be making some better decisions,” Petersen said. “Part of that is we have to get more balance and we can’t be so predictable.”
UNI’s coach also hinted that her team may make some adjustments to its rotation this weekend. Red-shirt freshman middle Kate Busswitz has competed in seven matches since returning from a foot injury suffered prior to the team’s season opener.
Busswitz already leads UNI with 1.13 blocks per set as she tries to catch up for lost time in her first season of collegiate competition. Her addition has provided more options within what has been a thin rotation.
“We don’t have a lot of time to work on them, but there are some things we’re going to do a little bit different that will be things we have not done on video (in UNI’s previous matches),” Petersen said. “I feel comfortable with that. It will be fresh for our team and something new and exciting for them to look forward to.”
LOUISVILLE SCOUTING REPORT: Former Nebraska player and assistant coach Dani Busboom Kelly has guided to Louisville to quick gains in her first season as head coach.
The Cardinals boast a 6-1 record in five set matches, including five wins over ACC opponents that went the distance. Louisville tied Pittsburgh for a share of the league championship after a five-set win over Syracuse on the final day of conference play within a league that generated six NCAA tournament qualifiers.
Melanie McHenry, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, leads Louisville with 3.6 kills per set, and the Cardinals have six attackers averaging at least 1.85 kills per set.
Louisville is a physical team that out-blocked its opponents 2.31 to 1.77 per set. Cardinals junior Wilma Rivera is the ACC Setter of the Year and libero Molly Sauer is a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
The winner of the Louisville-UNI match will likely face host Minnesota, a program that has reached the last two Final Fours, in Saturday night’s second round.