Panther volleyball claims NCAA Tournament bid

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COURTESY PHOTO/UNI Athletics

PATRICK HANSEN, Sports Writer

The Panther volleyball team hosted this season’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament, making it all the way to the championship match against Illinois State.  The Panthers ultimately fell short against the Redbirds, but good news rolled into Cedar Falls Sunday night leaving the Panthers elated to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“The minute that our name popped up it was just a ton of emotions from crazy excitement, yelling and screaming to crying to kind of disbelief a little bit,” head coach Bobbi Petersen said.  “We’re really excited and looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity.”

With the coveted bid, the Purple and Gold will travel to Lincoln, Neb., as they look to avenge a loss earlier this season in a rematch with the Missouri Tigers on Friday, Dec. 6.

Coming into the conference tournament, UNI earned a first-round bye before opening against Valparaiso in the second round.

Valparaiso came out of the first round with a 3-2 win over Bradley, leading to a matchup against the hometown Panthers. UNI started out their first match of the tourney ripping up the Valpo defense to take set one 25-9. The Panthers continued to roll past the Crusaders as they won set two 25-20, fell in the third 20-25 and took the fourth set 25-17.

Rachel Koop was key in the Panthers offensive attack as she had 50 assists on the night. Karlie Taylor led the offense in kills with 15, followed by Kate Busswitz, Kaylissa Arndorfer and Inga Rotto who all captured 11 kills, sending the Panthers into the conference championship.

In UNI’s 25th conference championship appearance, the Purple and Gold were unable to get in the swing of things as they fell to the Redbirds 3-0 with scores of 25-21, 25-16 and 25-19.

“Our slow start really deflated us and we can’t have that against a team like Illinois State that’s playing that way,” Petersen said.  “I feel like if we would’ve started early, like we did later, mid-sets being able to trade punches a little bit more rather than letting them go on runs, then we would have had a better shot.”

The Panthers offense was led by Taylor again with 19 kills with help from Koop putting up 29 assists.

The Panthers finished as the season runner-up in the conference with a record of 24-10 with a 17-1 conference record (excluding the conference championship loss).  The team will now get ready for a Missouri team that handed the Panthers a loss earlier in the season.

“We have a tough team in Missouri,” Petersen said.  “Missouri to me is one of the best offensive teams in the country.  We’re excited about being in Nebraska.  It will be a really good experience that our kids will get to have this week for sure.”