CEDAR FALLS -- Often a go-to option for Northern Iowa's volleyball offense, Piper Thomas has become familiar with the type of physical demands it takes to find team success.
Consistently working to make herself available at the net, Thomas has put together one of the most impressive seasons by an attacker in the history of UNI's storied program.
The junior middle hitter from Jesup enters Friday's 4:30 p.m. opening-round NCAA Tournament match against Louisville with a .362 hitting percentage that ranks 10 points higher than former middle Michelle Burow's .352 clip in 2010 for the most efficient year by a regular player in school history.
Just as impressive is the high-volume workload Thomas has handled. Her 495 kills currently rank seventh on UNI's single-season chart, and she needs just six kills Friday to move into the top five. A deep NCAA Tournament run could allow Thomas to surpass Kim Kester (521), along with her coach Bobbi (Becker) Petersen (534) and Kate Galer (535) for the No. 2 spot on the list behind Molly O'Brien (595).
"I love her aggressiveness," Petersen said. "She wants to take over."
A game-changing blend of power, speed, endurance and skill were all on full display last week as Thomas dominated a semifinal match in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Standing across the net was one of her role models, Jaelyn Keene, Illinois State's four-time first-team all-conference selection who has tallied 493 kills this season from her middle position.
Thomas excelled, becoming the first NCAA Division I athlete this season to record 28 kills without an error, and landing well over half of her 47 swings.
"Growing up within the conference and seeing Jaelyn Keene evolve and what a player she's been for Illinois State, I think that really helped push me," Thomas said. "When we play teams with good middles like that, I have to hold myself to a high standard because they're not going to take a play off, so I can't either."
While running the middle often takes the right matchup and pass from the back row, UNI setter Heather Hook says Thomas has progressed and gained so much confidence that she feels comfortable feeding her any ball at any tempo from anywhere on the court.
Such was the case in the Illinois State match when Thomas took over.
"I just kept setting her slides and she kept swinging and scoring," Hook said. "I remember one time I looked at her and said, 'I don't think you've been stopped yet.' I know when Piper is in the zone I can feed her the ball.
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"It doesn't have to be a perfect situation, she's going to go up and make a play out of it and that's what she did all night. I was really impressed with her poise and composure."
Thomas' role on defense has also expanded. She tallied a solo block and nine block assists, moving from pin to pin in that Illinois State match.
"You need to make sure you're reliable, you're aggressive and you're always working hard," Thomas said, summing up her responsibilities.
Just as important has been the junior's role as a mentor following the graduation of senior middle Kayla Haneline. Thomas helped junior college transfer Moriah Johnson adjust to the position after redshirt freshman middle Kate Busswitz injured her foot before the start of the season.
Victory for UNI ... the Panthers defeat the Redbirds in four sets - 25-20, 24-26, 25-22, 25-15. @PiperThomas7 with 28 kills (.596 with no errors) and 10 blocks. It ties for the 7th-most kills in an @MVCsports tournament match. #UNIFight #MVCVB pic.twitter.com/EhK3O6nj4k— UNIVolleyball (@UNIVolleyball) November 25, 2017
"I need to know what we're trying to do to shut down a specific person or what we're doing to take care of a play that the offense could run," Thomas said. "Being older, you have to be aware of everything that's going on and not just your job."
Petersen says Thomas' leadership role extends beyond her position group. She's a coachable athlete who can extend words into action.
"She (Thomas) is a leader by example to the entire team," Petersen said. "She gets pumped up. She's going to work hard to hold people accountable. ... She has very high goals for our team and if people aren't holding up their end of the bargain she's going to make sure that they know."
Already with 1,078 career kills to her name, Thomas still has one more season of collegiate volleyball in front of her. The hard-working athlete who received a first team all-MVC selection last week is now on pace to finish fourth among UNI's all-time career kills leaders.
Thomas and outside hitter Karlie Taylor have combined for 970 kills this season, the most by any UNI pairing since Molly O'Brien and Kim Kester totaled 1,116 in 2002.
"She's the type of kid that the minute we're done with this season she's going to be thinking, 'OK, how are we going to be better for next year,'" Petersen said. "It's going to be a lot of fun because every year we've been able to advance her game and do something a little bit more exciting and at a higher level. We're looking forward to the spring and being able to add more to her plate."
This article is written by Nick Petaros 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.