CEDAR FALLS — It took Rachel Koop until her fourth year of college before she finally earned a chance to live out a childhood dream of running the University of Northern Iowa’s volleyball offense.
The setter from nearby New Hartford made the most of her first season as a full-time starter in 2018, securing first-team all-conference honors in the Missouri Valley and ranking fifth nationally with 11.97 assists per set.
Often competing with a smile that masked her inner drive, Koop admits self-doubt initially crept into her mind following losses. Accepting setbacks, finding areas for growth and improving instead of dwelling on those defeats is part of Koop’s approach entering her redshirt senior season.
“The biggest takeaway (from last season) is probably knowing the work I put in isn’t always going to bring the outcome that I want, and being OK with that, and just learning from each game,” Koop said. “Last year we’d lose and I’d really be down on myself thinking about what I could do better.”
Looking beyond the matches that didn’t go her team’s way, UNI’s setter also takes pride in a 24-10 season in which the Panthers won the MVC regular season and tournament for the first time since 2010.
“I think that motivates me just as much as that loss feeling,” Koop said. “Being able to hold that trophy and know we were going into Selection Sunday with that (automatic) bid was awesome. … Before we were working for something that we never had as a class here. Now, I know what the feeling is and I want that back.”
One loss that has fueled the returning Panthers was a five-setter in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Panthers rallied from down two sets to take the match the distance before falling 15-13 in the fifth to Pepperdine.
“I think that is something our team really used over the spring and summer to stay motivated,” UNI coach Bobbi Petersen said Thursday during her program’s annual media day. “Those are the tough times of the year — there’s a lot of practicing, conditioning, things that aren’t much fun that prepare you for what happens in the fall. I think they did a very good job.”
Koop joins fellow first-team all-conference selection and senior outside hitter Karlie Taylor as veteran leaders. Petersen has praised Taylor’s evolution into a stable passer and dynamic server, complementing the fierce kills that attract attention on game nights.
“For the fans, she’s that big cannon, that big gun, she’s going to make that big kill,” Petersen said. “For us, Karlie has been a lot more than that. This year she will be a focus for most teams. Finding ways to score other than that big kill is going to be really important.”
Taylor doesn’t mind the extra attention she’s likely to attract.
“I don’t really want to be intimidated by that,” she said. “I just want to play my own game and if they want to focus on me, then my teammates will get kills.”
Juniors Jaydlin Seehase at outside hitter (3.02 kills per set) and Kate Busswitz at middle (2.14 kps) are among the weapons who could benefit from teams devoting extra attention to Taylor.
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The Panthers must replace two four-year starters in All-America middle Piper Thomas and libero Kendyl Sorge. In total, UNI’s roster has six upperclassmen, seven freshman and four sophomores.
“I think we have probably the youngest team that we’ve ever had,” Petersen said. “What I liked about our preseason is I feel that we didn’t really use that as an excuse for anything. We got in there and we worked hard.”
The search for a back row leader is one of the more intriguing position battles entering UNI’s Aug. 30 opener against a No. 4-ranked University of Texas program that features Bobbi Petersen’s daughter, Sydney, as the returning libero. Sydney’s sophomore twin sister, Baylee Petersen, will be competing with senior Abbi Staack and redshirt junior Taylor Hedges for the Panthers’ libero jersey.
“They all have very different strengths,” Bobbi Petersen said. “What’s really neat about it is they’re all three very versatile in their positions, as well. We feel very comfortable putting them left, middle, right, it doesn’t matter.
“I do think in these early tournaments we’re going to be able to use multiple people in that (libero) position. Ultimately, it’s how you perform on match day.”
Baylee Petersen will be focusing primarily on defense this season after being forced into a full-rotation role her true freshman year due to injuries.
“We have a lot of talent and I think that we all push each other to get better,” Baylee Petersen said, assessing the position battle. “It’s very competitive, but we’re all teammates first and I think that we push each other to get better no matter what.”
Freshmen Kaylee Donner of Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Payton Ahrenstorff of Spirit Lake are also in the defensive specialist mix. Waterloo’s Kaylissa Arndorfer and Pella’s Emily Holterhaus enter as middles capable of playing anywhere on the front row. They join a duo of outside hitters from Minnesota in Maizy Jackson and Emma Schmidt within the freshman class.
“I think they’ve done a great job of adapting to the UNI way,” said Taylor, who led the Panthers with 4.77 kills and 3.2 digs per set last season. “We play with a lot of defense, grit, lay out for the ball type of stuff. They’ve done a good job of trying to make that their way now.”
Sophomore middle Inga Rotto is another underclassman who has continued to develop. Bobbi Petersen felt she was playing her best volleyball during last season’s MVC and NCAA tournaments. Middles Kat Barr redshirted and Carly Spies saw limited reps as freshmen in 2018.
While this year’s Panthers may be young, Bobbi Petersen spoke with confidence in her team’s depth. UNI will be challenged early. No. 7 Kentucky, No. 14 USC and No. 18 Creighton all visit the McLeod Center Sept. 6-7.
“That’s a tournament where we want to try and prove ourselves,” Koop said.