CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s volleyball team is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament Thursday against Pepperdine.
After winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship, the Panthers (24-9) defeated Illinois State in the championship match of the MVC tournament on Saturday to secure an automatic bid.
First serve for Northern Iowa-Pepperdine in the NCAA first round is scheduled for at 5 p.m. Thursday at UW Fieldhouse in Madison, Wis.
With only five days between matches, UNI Coach Bobbi Petersen said she is trying to find a balance with the team.
“For us (we’re) just trying to find that balance between what you do on the court, what you do resting, what you do for recovery with our athletic training staff,” Petersen said. “Pepperdine, I think the last time they played was last Tuesday, so I think the biggest advantage for them is just being able to decide what they want to do and when.”
Pepperdine (21-8, 14-4) enters the NCAA Tournament as the West Coast Conference second-place finisher. The Waves have five players who recently earned WCC postseason honors, with setter Blossom Sato and outside hitter Hannah Frohling receiving first-team recognition.
“First of all, (they’re) an extremely tough serving team,” Petersen said. “As far as defense they are second, I think, in the (WCC) holding all their opponents to under (a) .200 hitting percentage and I think the biggest part of that is they have a great block up front. They’re very physical. And then they’re a very good ball-control team.”
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Led by Coach Scott Wong, the Waves employ a technique within their accomplished serving game the Panthers rarely see in top-spin serves.
“I think that (serving), to me, has the biggest potential for (a) challenge for us is just because we don’t see a lot of those type of servers,” Petersen said. “We’ve actually gotten a machine that we had from probably 10 years ago out of the closet to try to represent some of the top-spin. It’s not exactly the same and it ruins a few balls so we’re going to have to pick a few balls we want to ruin I guess. We don’t see a lot of the top-spin.”
The Panthers are seeking their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2002. Besides freshman middle blocker Inga Rotto, who ranks fifth on the team in kills, UNI’s roster is full of players with NCAA Tournament experience.
“There’s always going to be the nerves a little bit because it is an exciting time of year and it’s more adrenaline nerves than anything else,” Petersen said. “But I think we’ve had some experienced players that know how to handle that. They know how to handle the big stage. Any bit of experience, I think, is huge this time of year. Because it is very different.”
With a first-round win, the Panthers would face the winner of Green Bay and Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Friday.