CEDAR FALLS — An automatic berth into the 64-team NCAA championship volleyball field is the preferred method of qualifying.

But earning the automatic bid is not easy, so teams in mid-major conferences like the Missouri Valley have to be creative with their scheduling and try to build a strong enough resume to merit an at-large bid.

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University of Northern Iowa volleyball coach Bobbi Petersen and her staff have embraced that philosophy.

This season, the Panthers played 15 of their first 16 matches on the road, and six of them against top 25 opponents. In all, UNI played seven non-conference opponents that made the NCAA field.

With three wins over top 25 teams and that overall strength of schedule, the Panthers earned their third consecutive at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and will play Louisville at 5:30 p.m. ET Friday at Maturi Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus.

"To me it is a huge accomplishment to get those at-large bids because there are so many deserving teams," Petersen said Monday. "There are a lot of teams that are not in the Top 64, not in the NCAA Tournament, that I think deserve to be there."

UNI's 2017 schedule included No. 18 Southern Cal, No. 13 Kentucky and No. 7 Creighton in less than a 24-hour period. Two weeks later, the Panthers played No. 10 Nebraska and frequent NCAA qualifier Kansas State two hours apart in another tournament. UNI also posted a road win at top 25 Iowa State.

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"The top teams in the country are not going to do that, but we have to do that to allow our kids to have an opportunity or maybe knock somebody off and get those at-large bids," Petersen said. "It is grueling. We always talk about September, you have to survive September.

"We are fortunate that our kids stepped up in some of those opportunities and got it done. I give our kids a lot of credit for hanging in there with the schedule we put in front of them."

This article is written by Jim Nelson from Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.