CEDAR FALLS — As volleyball season nears Northern Iowa coach Bobbi Petersen is eager and anxious to see what her players will look like after the coronavirus pandemic pushed everyone away from their normal routines.
Her anxiety when it comes to getting back to on-court teaching of her team comes from missing out on spring training hours, a part of the offseason she says is critical — especially with freshmen.
“I think the toughest part was we have six freshmen and we talked all fall long in the recruiting process about how important those spring hours on the court are, because we really focus on individual training,” Petersen said. “In the fall you have to worry about your opponents and it’s more (about) how we’re competing as a team. (So we tried) to find creative ways to maybe get better at different things that we wouldn’t have opportunities to get better at if we were on the court.”
Some of the ways Petersen has guided her team while apart has been listening to instructional podcasts and taking notes, team-building through Zoom calls and pointing out how much more personal accountability can be learned while forced to be physically distant while staying ready.
Once the Panthers finally do reconvene as a team later this summer they have their work cut out for them, having lost their starting setter (Rachel Koop) and top outside hitter (Karlie Taylor) to graduation.
UNI’s setter position will feature a preseason camp competition between two freshmen. Meanwhile, Petersen acknowledged that a collective of players will be called upon to replace the production of Taylor from the outside.
“It’s interesting because our two setters, Ava Vitale and Tayler Alden, are both from the same club team,” Petersen said. “I see Tayler coming in as a freshman and playing no matter what. She’s going to be one of our top setters by the end of (her career).”
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Petersen added how Vitale will undoubtedly play an important role this season at setter. She also pointed out that she can’t remember UNI having a true freshman starting setter since the 1990s, before discussing outside hitter.
“You don’t really try to replace someone like Karlie Taylor,” Petersen said. “We have several players that can play multiple positions. So, I couldn’t even say right now, ‘this is two of the outside hitters that have the potential to fill in and at least be in Karlie’s position on the court.’”
Another dynamic created by the pandemic for Petersen to reckon with before the season begins is whether or not her playbook will be as robust as it typically is, especially given the youth on this year’s roster.
“One of our challenges is we have two very young setters. A freshman, (currently), and an incoming freshman. I think our biggest challenge when it comes to (the playbook) part will be offensively, what are we going to be able to do?” Petersen said. “You definitely don’t want to overwhelm. I think we can be very good and not have to overwhelm. It may be a little bit simpler to start off the season, but as the season progresses I think we can develop and do some different things.”
Despite any stress or anxiety the pandemic may have created for Petersen and the Panthers, she recognizes the competition is in the same situation, and admitted it was a good feeling last Monday when players were allowed to return to campus for voluntary workouts.
“I think if you have a really veteran team you’re probably going to be a little bit ahead of some of the teams that have more freshmen,” Petersen said. “We have six current freshmen and four incoming freshmen. Then, only six upperclassmen. It’s the same for everybody, but some (schools) are getting back a little earlier than others, so there’s going to be a lot of different things that we really can’t worry about.”