CEDAR FALLS — The Northern Iowa volleyball team, picked first in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, has its sights set on a conference championship and another birth in the NCAA Tournament. However, before that can happen, head coach Bobbi Petersen still has roles to fill, both on and off the court.
“Obviously we have some holes to fill this season,” said Petersen, entering her 19th season at the helm. “We will really be looking for that strong nucleus that we have returning to not only continue to do what they do production-wise on the court, but also to be good leaders for some of the young kids that are going to have to be on the court this year.”
The Panthers return four of their top six players and have added five talented freshmen that are likely to buck Petersen’s trend of redshirting newcomers.
Three seniors, headlined by middle hitter Piper Thomas and libero Kendyl Sorge, will be counted on to provide the leadership that was lost with Heather Hook’s graduation. Understanding the talent will be there and that chemistry could ultimately play a deciding factor in how far the team goes, UNI’s trio of seniors took a leadership course this summer to prepare themselves for the challenges of steering a team.
“We worked with a certified John Maxwell leadership coach,” Thomas said. “We were able to compare stuff we were reading in the book to things that we were maybe struggling with as a team in workouts or on the court and how we could apply this to different problems that we had. And it was really helpful because we actually were able to put some of this stuff into action and get some results this summer.”
While the Panthers know who’s in place to fill Hook’s leadership void, who will fill the hole left by her at setter remains to be seen. Redshirt junior Rachel Koop currently has the edge over freshman Tayah Mahi, but Petersen didn’t commit to either player at Thursday’s annual media day.
“Rachel Koop, who was the only setter with us during the spring and summer, did a really good job of establishing herself and growing as a player,” Petersen said. “Tayah Mahi from Cedar Falls as a freshman, obviously from her background, very skilled in the sport of volleyball. Has a lot of setting knowledge. Plays at a high level in a lot of different situations and now it’s just a matter of learning our game. So, we have two kids right there working hard to try and fill that position.”
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An interesting wrinkle with UNI’s class of five freshmen is that two are children of coaches — Baylee Petersen, Bobbi’s daughter, and Mahi, daughter to longtime assistant coach Kalani Mahi. It’s anticipated the two will not redshirt and will contribute right away, however what’s most important, according to Bobbi Petersen, is being as prepared as possible to do what’s right when it comes to coaching one of your own.
“I think having coaches’ kids within the program, you never really know until those opportunities are there, but it presents different challenges as well,” Coach Petersen said. “I don’t think you would ever know there was coaches’ kids in the gym at all.”
The Panthers led the nation in kills per set, team assists, team digs and team kills in 2017. Having one of the nation’s best defenses has, according to Petersen, made it clear that they’ll need to improve the quality of their hits post-dig to play longer into the 2018 season. Along with Thomas, outside hitters Jaydlin Seehase and Karlie Taylor will be counted upon for those quality hits. Petersen explained that Taylor has rounded out her repertoire as she enters her junior season.
Combine Taylor’s improvement with Seehase’s full season of experience and a heralded group of five freshmen and expectations are as high as they’ve ever been during Petersen’s career at UNI.
“We really try hard not to focus on those (preseason polls) and where we’re ranked,” Petersen said. “Even the years we’ve been in the top 25, it’s opinions, it’s different things. Nobody knows what’s going on inside each other’s programs. I can’t say that our kids aren’t thinking about that and that doesn’t put the pressure on, but we really try to get away from that and talk about other things.”
UNI begins its season Aug. 24 at the USC tournament in Los Angeles against No. 14 Creighton.