CEDAR FALLS — Towards the end of Saturday’s spring volleyball tournament inside the University of Northern Iowa’s Wellness and Recreation Center, Kate Busswitz could be seen returning serves and joining Inga Rotto as options taking swings from the left side.
UNI’s Jaydlin Seehase was limited to work out of the back row, and last year’s lead attacker, Karlie Taylor, looked on from the sideline with a walking boot on her right foot. Changes extended to a Panthers’ bench without assistant Kalani Mahi’s presence for the first time in 15 years.
UNI will certainly have a much different look by the time the Panthers host Creighton, Kentucky and USC in the opening weekend of home matches Sept. 6-7 inside the McLeod Center.
The spring rotation featured new leaders playing out of position, along with younger players taking on larger roles. UNI recovered from a 25-16 loss in Saturday’s opening set against Iowa State with a 25-23 win over the Cyclones in set two. The Panthers swept Western Illinois, 25-13, 25-21 before struggling to put scoring runs together against Iowa during a 25-21, 25-22 loss.
“I couldn’t be prouder of how they competed today,” UNI head coach Bobbi Petersen said. “I think everybody worked hard in taking ownership of something this weekend that they could do to improve and to be a better teammate, as well.”
Petersen anticipates Taylor will be able to return to workouts at some point this summer, while Seehase didn’t take swings Saturday for precautionary reasons. That duo joined graduate Piper Thomas to account for 76.5 percent of UNI’s kills last season when the Panthers finished as Missouri Valley Conference co-champions and won the league tournament.
Busswitz and Rotto are coming off their first full seasons as rotation regulars, playing in the middle and right side last fall. They have seen reps at all three front row positions this spring.
“Getting thrown into that situation of having to ball control and pass and play defense, I think that is going to help them in the fall if we need that for an option, even as a sideout,” Petersen said.
Redshirt senior-to-be Rachel Koop brings stability following her first season as a starting setter, and has joined Busswitz as a source of spring veteran leadership. Middle and right side options Carly Spies and Kat Barr are seeing more reps as they look to compete for rotation roles entering their second year in the program.
“This a really good group of positive hard-working girls,” Koop said. “We’ve gotten along really well, and really improved together. … We’ve grown a lot this spring.”
Longtime assistant Kim Davis has run position drills for Koop following Mahi’s departure after 15 years as UNI’s setting coach.
“She has different perspectives and she’s teaching me different things with footwork,” Koop said, addressing Davis’ high-energy approach. “It’s different, but I’m still learning a lot because she has put in so much work to help me get to the level I want to be at by the end of the spring.”
Following university protocol, Petersen’s search for an addition to the coaching staff has yet to reach the interview phase. While an assistant won’t be named prior to the end of the spring season, Petersen expressed optimism that she could have the vacancy filled by the end of May.
Mahi’s daughter, former Cedar Falls all-state setter Tayah Mahi, has also decided to leave the volleyball program following her redshirt season. Petersen says Tayah Mahi has yet to enter the transfer portal, but that could change.
“There’s part of it that she wanted to play for her dad and that’s not there anymore,” Petersen said. “It’s a different fit for different people and it just wasn’t the right fit here, and that’s OK. That happens.”
None of UNI’s six incoming freshmen are setters, leaving Koop as the only player at that position. Petersen intends to search the transfer portal to add a much-needed, back-up setter entering the fall.
All six of the freshmen UNI signed visited campus this weekend.
Emily Holterhaus of Pella is an athlete Petersen projects will be able to play any front row position, and eventually develop into a full-rotation option. Former Waterloo West standout Kaylissa Arndorfer is an option at middle and right side, while a pair of 6-foot Minnesota natives Maizy Jackson and Emma Schmidt will be options on the pins. Kaylee Donner of Cedar Rapids and Payton Arnsdorfer of Spirit Lake will add back row depth.
UNI has a trio of experienced players in Taylor Hedges, Abbi Staack and Baylee Petersen competing to lead the back row at libero following the graduation of four-year starter Kendyl Sorge. Baylee Petersen may also be a full-rotation outside hitter option.
The Panthers have demonstrated a willingness this spring to take on new roles and new challenges.
“We showed a lot of fight today,” Koop said. “Even when the points didn’t go our way, we were working hard and trying not to let the ball hit the ground.”