Volleyball preview 2021: Panthers look to get back to the top

COLIN HORNING, Sports Editor

The UNI volleyball team has had a rather atypical calendar year, to say the least. Following last year’s unorthodox spring “2020” season in which they fell to Loyola-Chicago in the MVC semifinals, this year’s team is expected to turn around and make some noise in the Missouri Valley Conference. 

Typically a powerhouse program throughout most of the tenure under head coach Bobbi Petersen, last season’s Panther squad had some growing pains. Finishing out the year with an 8-13 overall record and 8-8 in conference play, the young Panther team started out with struggles but made some noticeable improvements towards the end of the season. 

Right off the bat the Panthers will jump into a gauntlet of tough non-conference games to start the season. They will start with the Wisconsin-Green Bay tournament from Aug. 27-28 where they will match up with North Dakota State, Ball State and UW-Green Bay. The Panther women are also slated to play in the Kentucky Tournament against opponents such as Southern California, Kentucky and Creighton from Sept. 3-4, followed by the Washington State Tournament from Sept. 9-10 against Gonzaga, Washington State and Long Beach State. They will host Iowa State at the McLeod Center on Sept. 15 before their final non-conference tournament in Milwaukee, Wis. against Marquette, Wright State and Texas-San Antonio from Sept. 17-18. 

According to junior opposite hitter Inga Rotto, Coach Petersen schedules these tough pre-season tournaments to strengthen the team before conference play. 

“I think that’s always been the way that Bobbi has scheduled the pre-season tournaments,” said Rotto. “She really tries to make sure we get that tough competition right off the bat, which is something that drew me to UNI. I’ve always loved it. I think it definitely prepares us for the MVC, where we have really high expectations for ourselves this year. It’s the best way for us to figure out who we are as a team while also getting some great competition,” added Rotto. 

Last year’s young Panther squad made some great strides throughout the year, which was especially notable considering all of the strange circumstances such as playing a spring season and playing in arenas with few or no fans in the stands. As an older member of the team, Rotto says she noticed a lot of positive improvements throughout last year. 

“It was a new season for everybody, so there might have been a steep learning curve at the beginning. We didn’t have any of those pre-season tournaments to help us establish goals, either. But I think everybody figured out their role and stepped up in a really good way,” said Rotto. 

UNI was picked to finish sixth in the preseason MVC rankings, with Illinois State the early-season number one pick, followed by Drake and Loyola at numbers two and three, respectively. The Panthers’ first home game is on Sept. 15 against Iowa State. They will begin Missouri Valley Conference play on Sept. 24 against Bradley University, which is the first of a three-game homestand for them. The final home game and regular season game will be on Nov. 20 against Loyola, with the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament scheduled to begin on Thursday, Nov. 25 in Normal, Ill.