116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — For the 24th time in program history Northern Iowa volleyball is an NCAA tournament qualifier.
The Panthers (26-7) punched their ticket to the 64-team field with an automatic berth, winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last weekend.
This year’s bracket wasn’t as regionalized as previous years, but UNI still got the benefit of a short bus trip to Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis, where it will face Florida State (19-10) at 4:30 p.m. in Friday’s first round (ESPN+).
“Very big, physical team and super balanced on the offensive side,” UNI Coach Bobbi Petersen said of the Seminoles. “They don’t just have one or two kids that they go to to save them, they’re very balanced.
“So that poses a lot of problems for your defense if they’re in system. Obviously the serve and pass game is going to be huge anytime you head into (the tournament).”
In mentioning the importance of serve and pass to her team’s success, Petersen spoke about how the Panthers were able to produce an MVC tournament record 15 aces in their 3-2 championship match win against Drake.
“We did a really good job of not just the acing part of it, but getting (Drake) out of system and making them more predictable, for sure,” Petersen said. “That, like I’ve (said) many times, has been a strength for us. The last few weeks it was a little bit up and down, but I feel really good about being back to where we need to be (at) NCAA tournament time.”
UNI will be challenged in a number of other ways by the Seminoles’ height. FSU’s top four players in kills this season — Audrey Koenig (314), Khori Louis (229), Emily Ryan (228) and Emma Clothier (205) — stand 6-foot-3, 6-3, 6-4 and 6-2.
“Mentally (their height) can’t change who we are,” Petersen said. “We’ve faced many big kids. You’ve just gotta find different ways to hit. You can’t hit down and we have kids that are very capable of hitting off the block and being able to tool. Part of that is going to be being in system to allow Taylor (Alden) to get people one-on-one.”
Setting aside their matchup against Florida State and focusing on what this particular NCAA tournament berth means — the Panthers’ first since 2019 — Petersen heaped praise on the seniors who used their extra year of eligibility to return this season.
“I could not be happier for this group. Nobody, unless you’ve been in it, understands what that COVID situation was like for a student-athlete,” Petersen said. “It’s really easy to say ‘we’re coming back, we don’t want to end like this,’ but you have to put the work in to do it.
“Our senior class has led the way with that.”
If UNI wins Friday, it will face the winner of No. 8 Minnesota (20-8) and Southeastern Louisiana (25-7) Saturday at 7 p.m. (ESPN+).
Iowa State’s late-season surge earns NCAA bid
Iowa State’s volleyball team started the season 1-4. Prospects for a 15th NCAA Tournament berth in head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch’s 18 seasons appeared bleak, but the Cyclones revived and will face Florida Gulf Coast in the first round at 3:30 p.m. Friday in Gainesville, Fla.
Sixth-seeded ISU (19-11) won double-digit Big 12 matches for the first time since 2017, including a win against overall No. 1 seed Texas on Oct. 19 in Ames.
If the Cyclones beat the Eagles (26-6) they’ll face either No. 3 seed Florida or Florida A&M in Saturday’s 6 p.m. second-round match.
— Rob Gray, correspondent