CEDAR FALLS — After sharing the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball regular-season championship last season, Northern Iowa secured this season’s title for itself last Friday in a win over Loyola-Chicago.
“It was such a relief,” UNI junior Kate Busswitz said. “The past couple years we’ve worked hard for it — last year we shared the title, so it was just one of those things where it was all ours, it was secured, it was locked in.
“We knew we were in the tournament, we knew what day we were playing. It was really a big weight off our shoulders.”
Along with the Missouri Valley Conference tournament that begins today, Thanksgiving week for UNI (23-9, 17-1) includes community service, team arts and crafts and a team meal to celebrate the holiday. Busswitz, a Cedar Rapids Prairie alum, enjoys this special time of year with her teammates and will even have the pleasure of getting a taste of home despite not being able to make family Thanksgiving.
“My Grandma is the best (at making pie),” Busswitz said. “So, my whole family is in Cedar Rapids this week before the conference tournament (and) they’re actually doing Thanksgiving meal and everything without me and so I just said, ‘All I ask for is pie.’ So they’re bringing me some leftover pie.”
Before Busswitz indulges on grandma’s pie, she and her teammates will take on the winner of Bradley and Valparaiso on Friday at 5 p.m. in the semifinals of the MVC tournament at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls.
Th MVC championship potentially doesn’t happen this season without UNI Coach Bobbi Petersen making an adjustment to the offense near the end of non-conference play.
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Busswitz, who was recruited as a middle hitter and had played the position since arriving at UNI in 2016, got more opportunities to swing from the left side this season after Petersen’s offensive change.
“I think that our offense has improved tremendously,” Busswitz said. “We made some rotation switches and we ran a different offense giving Rachel (Koop) more options when working with each of us. Some of us are hitting from all three positions in the front row during a single rotation, so Rachel has so many options when working with us and I think that has really helped us after the (non-conference) struggles that we had.”
The Panthers and their new-look offense hope their success extends well beyond this weekend’s conference tournament. Petersen has guided UNI to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the Sweet 16 twice.
With NCAA tournament experience, Busswitz explained how the Panthers welcome the bright lights of college volleyball’s biggest stage.
“I think something that’s really great about the NCAA (tournament) is fan bases,” Busswitz said. “You’re playing in big arenas. You’re playing with a big crowd who’s supporting that home team, but I think something that’s really helped us as a program is we play in McLeod, we play with a big crowd.
“We know how to handle big noise and big teams.”