CEDAR FALLS — Call it a wake-up call.

An around-the-clock weekend of competition against AVCA Top 25 opponents proved to be an eye-opening experience for a University of Northern Iowa roster that includes the largest freshman class in head coach Bobbi Petersen’s 20-year tenure.

The Panthers’ veteran coach said Saturday inside the McLeod Center that she felt her team made progress despite struggling with consistency in the back row and shot selection miscues from new contributors up front.

UNI’s players left the McLeod Center after 11 p.m. Friday night following a hard-fought, five-set loss to a No. 23-ranked Creighton team that swept the round robin field. The Panthers returned to their home arena for warm-ups at 8 a.m. Saturday morning before dropping a four-set battle with No. 15 USC, and shut the lights out late Saturday night with a loss against No. 12 Kentucky, 25-18, 25-20, 25-20.

“I feel like we have done a lot of things better than last weekend,” Petersen said, following the USC match. “We’re not being rewarded with that by getting a win. We have to look at the little things we’re doing that we’re getting better and know that in the end it’s going to help us out.”

The one thing the Panthers do know is they have a weapon in senior outside hitter Karlie Taylor who can more than hold her own against the nation’s best.

A morning after taking 78 swings against Creighton, Taylor powered UNI to an early lead against USC with 10 of her match-high 24 kills coming in a first set victory. She added 10 kills on 28 swings to lead the Panthers against Kentucky.

“It’s what my role has to be at this point of the season,” Taylor said, addressing the workload. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches and get your body ready.”

USC controlled the second and third sets against UNI and overcame an 18-11 deficit in the fourth to secure a road win, 23-25, 25-20, 25-15, 25-22.

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UNI (2-3) was often left with predictable attack options with placement of passes out of the back row too far off the net over the final three sets. USC (2-3) finished with a 21-4 advantage in blocks, including four rejections during a 11-1 run that translated into a 22-19 fourth-set lead as the Panthers were unable to extend the match.

“USC is really big and physical,” Petersen said. “They were doing a lot of waiting and then chasing. If we’re in system I don’t think they’d be as successful in their block, but we made it pretty easy defensively for them because we didn’t pass well today.”

The Panthers continued to get out-blocked Saturday night as Kentucky controlled the net with a 9-4 advantage. The Wildcats pulled away from ties at 13 in set one, 19 in set two and nine in set three.

Two weeks into the season, UNI is still breaking in newcomers. Last season’s starting outside hitter Jaydlin Seehase has not yet dressed or participated in warm-ups following a shoulder injury has kept her sidelined since December.

True freshmen Emily Holterhaus and Emma Schmidt combined for eight UNI kills and nine attack errors on 31 swings in Saturday’s morning match. Waterloo native Kaylissa Arndorfer joined Holterhaus as freshmen who saw court time against Kentucky.

“I think it’s just like any freshman,” Petersen said. “They have moments of really doing things well and being confident with what they’re doing, then other times where they back off a little bit and are a little more timid.”

Certainly a UNI schedule that includes four AVCA Top 25 opponents in the first six matches is a daunting test for any collegiate newcomer.

“We need to encourage them to be confident players because they’ve been the best probably all four years of high school, and then they come to UNI,” Taylor said. “It’s a different game but they are great players. Being confident in their own skills, coming out and displaying them, is I think what we’ve been trying to encourage them to do the most.”

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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