CEDAR FALLS — Despite losing six players from the team that won the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship, Northern Iowa was selected by the league’s volleyball coaches as its preseason favorite on Wednesday.
UNI Coach Bobbi Petersen knew after the 2019 season outside hitter Karlie Taylor, all-conference setter Rachel Koop and libero Abbi Staack would be gone. What she didn’t know was that a pandemic would postpone the 2020 season to the spring of 2021 and lead to 2019 juniors Kate Busswitz, Taylor Hedges and Jaydlin Seehase not being around for the season.
“First, I’m going to pinch myself to make sure I’m really here right now,” Petersen said. “People have been asking me, ‘Well, who’s going to be this, who’s going to be that?’ I think there’s just so much opportunity for kids to get out there and see what they’ve got and then go from there.”
The Panthers roster includes nine freshmen — four of them redshirts — three sophomores and four juniors. Key returnees include middle Kaylissa Arndorfer and outside hitters Inga Rotto and Emily Holterhaus.
Arndorfer, a sophomore, was selected to the preseason all-conference team Wednesday and is the Panthers’ leading returner in kills. Rotto and Holterhaus, who Petersen said would largely play as outside hitters this season, are UNI’s next two leading kill-getters from 2019.
For the first time in Petersen’s 21-year tenure, the Panthers will have a true freshman starting at setter.
Oconomswoc, Wis., native Tayler Alden will start Friday night’s season-opener at Drake.
“We’re excited. She’s a lefty. She can provide a lot of offense for herself when she starts feeling comfortable with that,” Petersen said. “I think our team has done a really good job of making her feel comfortable.”
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Similar to the MVC’s basketball schedules, teams will play two-game series on back-to-back days in one locale.
“As with most matches it’s really going to be — which is challenging with a team with not a lot of experience — a lot of match-time decisions that have to happen,” Petersen said. “We can do all we want to counter what happened the night before but you know the opposing team is doing the same thing.”
The conference will invite eight rather than six teams to its tournament in April. The NCAA tournament also has been affected by the pandemic, reducing its field from 64 to 48, which limits the number of at-large bids from 32 to 16.
Petersen enters the 2021 spring season on the doorstep of MVC history, being just one win shy of becoming the conference’s all-time wins leader.
“It just means the accomplishments of what so many people have done,” Petersen said. “It’s the fans, it’s the administration, it’s obviously the student-athletes and the coaches. The coolest part about reaching those milestones is just allowing yourself to take an opportunity to sit back and think about all those people and maybe even reach out to some of those people.”