CEDAR FALLS – What is normal?
After an unusual 12 months, the Northern Iowa volleyball team has joked a lot about the word ‘normal’ since the Panthers opened preseason camp on Aug. 9.
“It has been a very unique and interesting last year,” head coach Bobbi Petersen said. “I think one of the biggest parts of it is not being able to see people like you, see our fans. You don’t know how much you appreciate people. But when you don’t get to see them you realize how much more you miss them.”
The 2020 fall season was canceled because of the COVID pandemic and moved to the spring. Three players who would’ve made major contributions in 2020 were not around when the spring schedule started with two of them graduating and a third retiring because of injuries.
A team with a team with no seniors in addition to having more than 10 underclassmen playing, the Panthers suffered their first below .500 season since 1978 with a 9-13 mark, including an 8-8 Missouri Valley Conference season.
UNI has been picked to finish sixth in the Valley which is the lowest in Petersen’s tenure. The all-time wins leader in Valley history will be beginning her 22nd season.
Petersen said her team’s focus in the preseason has not been how the spring season didn’t go their way. In fact, Petersen says, it wasn’t a focal point in the spring, either.
“Our focus has to be on the things we can control,” Petersen said. “Even this spring there were some things we couldn’t control that may have had an affect on somethings, but that is not where our minds went.
“I will tell you it was one of the toughest years in terms of record and I have had a lot of teams if they were in that situation would not have responded as well. I never felt the record went into a practice or a match. Our team I felt put their minds in the right place and that was on what can we do to get better.
“Having that same mentality moving forward this season…it is what are the things that can prevent us from getting to where we want to go? That is where we are putting our mind and focus on,” finished Petersen.
It also means preparing to play a second season in a seven month period.
“Just like all teams we are trying to figure out how to navigate coming off a season and then a coming one,” Petersen said. “The season takes a lot out of your body and we just had one and now we are going into another one. We will be managing bodies and minds while also trying to prepare to play.”
The Panthers return three student athletes who earned All-MVC recognition in the spring. Sophomore Emily Holterhaus was first-team pick. Inga Rotto made the second team freshman setter Tayler Alden was named to the MVC All-Freshman team.
The sixth-place prediction has drawn UNI’s attention.
“We have talked about that,” Waterloo West graduate Kaylissa Arndorfer said. “It puts a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, but at the same time it doesn’t mean anything, either. That is just speculation and in our eyes we are No. 1.”
Petersen added, “There is a lot of work that goes into what happens and what the final standings are.”
Once again the Panthers will be young with only four upperclassmen – Iowa State transfer Jenna Brandt of Fredericksburg, defensive specialist Baylee Petersen, middle blocker Carly Spies and Rotto.
Petersen, like freshman Maizy Jackson and incoming freshman Dani Johnson of Osage will not play this season due to injury.
The loss of Petersen, who led the Panthers with 338 digs in the spring, hurts UNI’s depth at defensive specialist/libero. Freshmen Kaylee Donner and Payton Ahrenstorff are the only two healthy defensive specialists. Incoming freshman Kira Fallert could be an option in that role.
“Depth is always a concern, but as we tell the team we have to control what we can and that is not something we can,” Petersen said.
All of UNI’s experience comes along the front line starting with Holterhaus who smashed home 288 kills and was a valuable back row player with 256 digs.
“Emily is going to be a great left-side for us,” Petersen said. “She is going to be somebody that has to have some production on the offensive side for us and play all the way around. She has improved so much without really having an offseason.”
Rotto (184), Spies (148) and Arndorfer (192) all provided punch in the spring offensively and will be asked for more in the fall.
Bobbi Petersen continues to place more value on relationships than numbers after moving to the top of the MVC wins chart with 511 career victories.
Setter depth is not a return. Alden gained valuable experience after becoming the first true freshman to start at the position for UNI since Kara Galer in 1992. Brandt played a lot games at that spot for Iowa State in 2018 and 2019.
“I think our ability to possibly use them both in different ways is something we are looking at,” Petersen said.
TOUGH AS NAILS: Once again UNI will play one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation and in particular all of September.
The Panthers will face preseason No. 3 and defending national champion Kentucky on the Wildcats home court as well as traditional power programs Southern Cal (No. 26) and Creighton (No. 27) on Sept. 3-4. UNI also plays at No. 18 Washington State and finish their non-conference slate playing Marquette and Wright State, both who received votes in the AVCA preseason poll.
“I love it,” Alden said of the non-conference schedule.
“Getting to play Kentucky on their home court will be exciting and something to look forward to,” Arndorfer added.
The tournament with the Wildcats, USC and Creighton is in the seventh year of its rotation with each school hosting in different seasons.
“We are going to have a very busy, very fun September and one that we hope prepares us for what we know is going to be a very grueling and rigorous conference schedule, Petersen said.