CEDAR FALLS — Bobbi Petersen used to travel with her oldest twin daughters to every volleyball Final Four. They’d soak in the experience of seeing the sport played near its highest level and dream of one day competing on that championship stage.
Sydney Petersen nearly made that dream a reality last season when the freshman libero helped the University of Texas reach the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight round.
Baylee Petersen carved out her own role within the University of Northern Iowa volleyball program that her mom has coached for the past two decades. She filled in at outside hitter and averaged more than two digs per set as a defensive specialist on an NCAA Tournament-qualifying team.
Baylee, Sydney and Bobbi Petersen’s paths will intersect at 7 p.m. Friday inside Texas’ Gregory Gymnasium when UNI opens its season against the AVCA’s No. 4-ranked Longhorns.
“I don’t think the whole reality of them playing against each other and me being the coach for one of the teams has really set in,” Bobbi Petersen said.
It’s a match that has been in the works since Sydney Petersen first committed to Texas. The Longhorns will make a return trip to Cedar Falls next season.
“That’s why I think college athletics are special and unique,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “You can set up matches that mean something, whether it’s a rivalry or a family member. This is something this family will never forget. We know there’s going to be tons of emotions to it, but to me this is something that is very special.”
Growing up in a tight-knit community and volleyball hotbed, Sydney and Baylee Petersen worked side-by-side as part of three state championship teams at Dike-New Hartford where their mom first starred. Sydney’s decision to move from a place where everybody knew her name to one of the nation’s largest universities was a step outside her comfort zone.
“It was a big transition, and it was honestly a big leap for me,” Sydney Petersen said during a phone interview from Austin. “I’m really close with my family and close with everyone in my town. Coming to a big city like this was very different, but I’m happy with my choice and I love it here.
“I knew it was something that I needed to do, because if I didn’t, I would regret not going.”
Following graduation, the twins received their first taste of being separated when Sydney and her dad, Duane, traveled on Texas’ European trip. That journey helped Sydney find her voice on a new team, and she was placed into the libero position that leads the Texas back row from day one.
As a freshman, Sydney Petersen led the 23-5 Longhorns with 362 digs and 23 service aces.
“It sure helped that she was in a crib at practices to see the game early on,” Elliott said, addressing her volleyball upbringing. “Sydney has a set of eyes where she sees things differently than most players her age. She’s super competitive, comes from a competitive family, and has great character and values and will run through a wall to be successful. We’re lucky to have her.”
While Sydney found instant success, she still missed having her longtime teammate and sibling by her side.
“She (Baylee) was that person to tell me to get my head out of my butt when I needed it,” Sydney said. “Not having her on the court, I had to make more connections with people and relationships.”
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Sydney maintains daily communication with Baylee and Bobbi, whether it is a long conversation or a text. Volleyball certainly remains a discussion topic.
“Being apart, it’s hard, but also I feel like we’ve grown closer together,” Baylee Petersen said. “We cherish the moments that we’re together more.”
Added Bobbi Petersen, “They’ve done a really good job of being there for each other, but also taking this time to really grow into their own worlds. … Because we’re in a small town, they had the same friends and they did the same things all the time. I think it’s been really good for them to find their own way.”
As for Friday’s match, it will mark the first time Sydney’s younger sisters, Jadyn and Payton, have visited her at college. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends are also making the trip.
On the court, how will Bobbi Petersen attack an opponent she knows better than anyone?
“My mom hasn’t been talking to me about those things,” Sydney Petersen said. “I’m sure they’ll challenge me at first and then see how it goes.”
Will Sydney fire a serve near Baylee in the back row? The Texas libero says that’s up to associate head coach Tonya Johnson.
“If she tells me to serve Baylee, well, I’m going to have to,” Sydney laughed.
While this won’t be the first time Baylee and Sydney Petersen have tried to match each other dig for dig, the stakes are certainly higher.
“In practices when we’d scrimmage and with certain drills that we’d do, definitely we were competitive with each other,” Baylee Petersen said. “I feel like that was always a good thing growing up. I’m really excited to see how it is when we’re on opposite teams.”
When Sydney returned home this past summer, she was able to catch up with members of a UNI roster that also includes former high school teammates Rachel Koop and Taylor Hedges. The Panthers plan on killing her with kindness.
“I feel like it’s going to be weird at first playing against them,” Sydney Petersen said. “I talked to them this summer and they said, ‘We’re just going to be smiling at you through the net.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’”
While Bobbi Petersen won’t be a conflicted parent sitting in the stands wearing a custom house divided shirt of UNI purple and Texas burnt orange, she realizes this will be a treasured season-opener.
“I’m really excited to see Sydney,” UNI’s coach said. “I really need to work hard at soaking it in. This is a match we need to go compete, and want to win, but also I want to find a way to enjoy it a little bit, too.”