CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa volleyball coach Bobbi Petersen has led her team back to the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in her career and third consecutive season after posting a 26-8 regular-season record that was good enough to earn an at-large bid to the 64-team field.
While the Panthers haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2002 they’re as battle-tested as any other tournament participant, having defeated five teams in the field. That experience has Petersen confident that her team is ready to rise to the occasion.
“You never really know, but I feel like we have a lot of reasons to be confident going into the tournament,” Petersen said. “I think just the excitement of playing another team that’s different and the excitement of playing what you know is going to be a top-level team, I think our kids really feed off of that. They like going up against big hitters. They like going up against the big block.”
The “different” team that UNI is set to take on are the Louisville Cardinals (24-6), who are one of a record six ACC teams in the tournament. Picked to finish eighth in the ACC’s preseason poll, the Cardinals were a Cinderella story of sorts in their conference under the guidance of first-year head coach Dani Bussboom-Kelly.
“At first look on video it looks like they’re a very balanced offensive team with low errors,” Petersen said. “They also have what I consider a go-to player. One of their sophomore outside hitters. They’re very big and physical. You’re looking at 6’2”, 6’3” in most the positions across the net. So they put up a nice, physical block and defend well around that. It looks like they’re a very aggressive serving team. I think there’s some things they do defensively that are different that we’ll have to prepare for. We definitely know they’re going to be very well coached.”
Working to UNI’s advantage is its familiarity with Minneapolis, the site of rounds one and two. The Panthers last played in Minnesota in 2015 and five players on the current roster were members of that team.
“We go to Minnesota, a place we’ve been many times,” Petersen said. “I think one of the neatest things about being there is they will have a great tournament atmosphere. I guarantee it’s going to be sold out. They have a really great volleyball venue so I’m really excited that our kids will get to experience that.”
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Given Northern Iowa’s loss to Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final last Saturday, Petersen was unsure heading into Selection Sunday if they’d see their name come across the TV screen.
“It just never gets any easier sitting in that locker room and waiting to see if your name pops up on the screen,” Petersen said. “With each name that pops up there’s just a little more anxiety that builds. A lot of people that thought we’d be in thought we’d be going to (Ames) and when that bracket went by and we weren’t in you could just see a little more anxiety build. Obviously that Minnesota site came up and as a coaching staff we knew that was probably our last opportunity and to see our name pop up just the excitement; it never gets old seeing that from your kids.”
Northern Iowa takes on Louisville at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis. Video coverage is available for free on BTN Plus. Radio coverage is available on 1540 KXEL-AM.
No. 7 Minnesota (26-5) and North Dakota (30-7) square off in the other first-round matchup in Minneapolis, with the winners to meet at 8 p.m. Saturday in the second round.