Northern Iowa started the season as the clear favorite in Missouri Valley Conference volleyball. Nothing changed after the Panthers went 8-2 with a win at then-No. 8 Minnesota and didn't play a non-conference match at home.
"They're great," Wichita State coach Chris Lamb said. "They've got balance. They've got as dynamic a setter as you're going to see."
Wichita State opens MVC play tonight at Bradley (4-6) before playing the 17th-ranked Panthers on Saturday. The Shockers (7-2) won't exactly look past Bradley, losers of 14 straight to WSU. Everybody, however, knows the weekend's success depends on Saturday. UNI went 18-0 in Valley play last season, beating the Shockers three times.
"This one's huge," setter Mary Elizabeth Hooper said. "We've got Bradley first, but I'd lie if I said we weren't all focusing on UNI."
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The Panthers return two All-MVC players (libero Ellie Blankenship and middle Michelle Burow), MVC Player of the Year Bre Payton at setter and Freshman of the Year Amy Braun at outside hitter. Both losses are to ranked teams (Dayton and Iowa State) and the Panthers own wins over Purdue, Baylor and Kansas.
The schedule may work in WSU's favor. UNI plays Missouri State, picked second in the MVC, on Friday. The Panthers must split their preparation this week, and they may be pushed hard on Friday. Hooper likes playing UNI early, before scouting reports are voluminous.
"We're going to surprise some people," she said. "The first weekend, you can only do so much with tape and hearsay. We can get them before they hear what we do and what we're about."
The Shockers weren't sure themselves until the past week. Then they won four straight matches. Lamb loves his defense — the Shockers are holding opponents to a .114 attack percentage. WSU's offense improved over the past week when Emily Adney and Amanda Backes stepped up their efficiency.
"We found what we can do together and I think it gave us a lot of confidence," Adney said. "I know that we all cannot wait to get on the bus and head to Iowa."
Adney and Camri Zwiesler give WSU two potent hitters on the left. When Backes is playing well, the right side is also dangerous.
"We need her," Hooper said. "We're looking for a right-side to put in for good and not have to figure out who can hit there."
Backes contributed in many areas in Tuesday's sweep of SMU. She hit .222 with seven kills, two aces, seven digs, a solo block and five block assists.
"She's got that serve going, and that's how she's moving the scoreboard," Lamb said. "It's not just on the offensive side. That's what we need from her."