UNI volleyball opens the 2018 season at the top of the MVC preseason poll, and two Panthers were named to the preseason all-conference team.
The Panthers return a strong corps of veterans on defense and offense and, along with Missouri State, had the most named to the preseason all-conference team. Karlie Taylor and Piper Thomas were named to the preseason all-conference team.
"We have a couple of players in Kendyl Sorge and Piper Thomas who have started since they were freshmen, so we obviously look to them to lead the way," said head coach Bobbi Petersen. "The cool thing is one is more on the defensive side, and one is more on the offensive side when it comes to production. However, Piper has a defensive role with the block. Besides the leadership part, I look for those two to take control of their parts of what we do."
In addition to Sorge and Thomas, UNI returns Taylor and Jaydlin Seehase to the lineup. Thomas and Taylor earned AVCA honorable mention All-America honors last season.
"Karlie Taylor should be a standout for us in terms of offense," said Petersen. "We look for her to be someone who could potentially play six rotations for us and be someone that can help us with our ball control and passing."
UNI lost setter Heather Hook to graduation.
"We’ll have a new setter," said Petersen. "So we’ll find out what kind of offense we are capable of running in the preseason practices. We like to run a little bit faster offense, and we’re hoping to do that. We had Rachel Koop here training in the spring and really working on the connection on our faster-tempo offense. Now we’ll get Tayah Mahi in for the next couple of weeks here. I feel good that we have capable attackers, it’s just what style of offense we’ll be running."
Last year, UNI knocked off four ranked opponents, including eventual national champion Nebraska. The team earned its 21st NCAA Tournament berth and advanced to a second-round match with a win over Louisville. The Panthers led the nation in kills per set (15.24), team assists (1,857), team digs (2,581) and team kills (1,997).
"Over the last couple of years, we have had a more physical block, but we have had to work on the mental side and technical side. But I feel like this year because we have some of the same people in those positions, blocking-wise, we should be better as a blocking team.
Head coach Bobbi Petersen ranks No. 10 among active coaches with a .766 winning percentage. She is one of four all-time Missouri Valley coaches to have surpassed the 400-win mark with an overall record of 461-141.
UNI will hosts its annual Purple and Gold Scrimmage 4 p.m. Saturday. The event is free to the public. McLeod doors will open at 3 p.m.
The Panthers open season play on the road Aug. 24 and will host Iowa State 7 p.m. Aug. 29.
Last season, the Valley had two teams in the national tournament for the 14th time in league history. It was the 10th time in the last 12 seasons that two teams earned a spot.
Conference teams will be returning 71 percent of its starters from last year, four AVCA All-Americans, seven first team all-conference selections and four student-athletes who earned second team accolades.
"The way I see it, there may be only one or two teams who shouldn’t vote for themselves as the champion," Petersen said. "I really think that’s the depth we are going to have in the conference. I think it’s going to be a tough conference race."
UNI’s 95 points topped reigning champs Missouri State’s 89 points in the poll.
"You have the traditional powerhouses who lost the most returners, like Missouri State," Petersen said. "However, Missouri State is just going to reload and they have people just waiting for their opportunity. So, I think they are going to be a team that definitely fights for a team championship even though they lost five really key players. Then when you look at everyone else, everyone is returning a lot high-production student-athletes."
Drake brings back five starters, including its libero and outside hitter Cathryn Cheek, who was a first team All-MVC selection.
"Drake hardly lost anyone and, besides the conference tournament, had a really good year. They just had a really down conference tournament, which was unfortunate for them, because they really had some opportunities to do some damage in the conference tournament. They will be a team that will be strong."
Illinois State also returns five starters and its libero.
"They lost one key player and now they are in the new system and used to their head coach," Petersen said. "Last year was her first year. I think they are going to be a powerhouse, especially at the pin area, which is going to be their strength just because of who they lost in the middle."
UNI and Missouri State had two student-athletes named to the preseason all-conference team, while Bradley, Drake and Illinois State each had one:
- Emily Butters – Missouri State
- Cathryn Cheek – Drake
- Aubrey Cheffey – Missouri State
- Erica Haslag – Bradley
- Courtney Pence – Illinois State
- Karlie Taylor – UNI
- Piper Thomas – UNI