With the first serve in Wisconsin's match against Illinois, the Big Ten season officially begins for all 11 teams.
The 11 Big Ten schools compiled a 91-26 (.778 winning percentage) during the nonconference season, with every team getting through the early part of the season with a winning record.
When talking about the conference, Wisconsin head coach Pete Waite said that Michigan — the Badgers' second opponent this week — so far has been the surprise of the conference.
After finishing sixth in the Big Ten last year, the Wolverines are off to the second-best start in team history at 12-0 and remain the only team in the Big Ten to enter conference play undefeated. Because of its solid play, Michigan has risen up the rankings to No. 10 — highest in team history.
"We knew that they had a good recruiting class coming in," Waite said at his Monday press conference. "They've jumped up, and they had a big win at Hawaii, and that's just not easy to do with the big crowds that they have and the level of play they've been at all the time."
Preseason conference favorite Penn State — unlike last year — was unable to make it to Big Ten season undefeated, going 8-2 in nonconference play. However, that can be attributed to the Nitty Lions' tough nonconference schedule. They opened the season with two wins against then-No. 4 Texas, and their two losses have come to No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Stanford.
"Penn State's been as strong as we expected," Waite said. "Obviously winning the Big Ten last year, they've been ranked No. 3, I think, right now, and they deserve that ranking. Again, they're at least as physical as last year, if not more."
Even with Michigan's strong start, Waite sees the Big Ten coming down to the traditional powerhouses and that his team is going to have to start conference play strong to remain near the top.
"I think again it's going to be Penn State, Minnesota and Wisconsin at the top," Waite said. "We're going to have to win these road matches in the first couple weeks to make sure we have a shot at Penn State when it comes time."
Badgers remain on the road
After competing in two nonconference tournaments on the road in early September, Wisconsin will continue to play away from the Field House for the first four conference matches.
Waite sees this stretch as a chance for his team to improve before getting to the tough part of the schedule with matches against Penn State and Minnesota.
"We've already been on the road the last two weeks," Waite said. "Then hitting the road the first half of Big Ten, we hope getting through that stretch toughens us up."
Although it is never easy to play on the road, Waite sees the advantages of playing away from home.
"It's not easy, though, when you're going on the road," Waite said. "Things happen with the travel and hotels and illness and different things.
"But there's often times where it's also a better focus on the road because there aren't the distractions of family and friends, and they can really play well on the road."
Right side shaping up
With middle blocker Amy Bladow graduating after last season, redshirt junior Audra Jeffers slid over from the right side to fill her spot in the middle. This left a hole on the right side for Waite to fill.
So far this season, redshirt sophomore Katherine Dykstra and junior Morgan Salow have filled in nicely.
After a slow start, Dykstra came on strong at the Loyola Marymount Invitational. In two matches she put down 23 kills and also had 10 stuffs. Because of her strong play, Dykstra earned her first all-tournament honors.
"[Dykstra's] been the one that's been stepping up the most as a starter for us, and physically, she's phenomenal," Waite said. "She puts up a big block … and she's got the best vertical jump on our team."
While Dykstra has received most of the starts of late, Salow has come off the bench and contributed. In 16 games, she averaged 2.38 kills per game to go along with 0.75 blocks per game.
"Salow's been doing a good job both in the middle and the right side," Waite said. "She's coming off the bench, but really gives us some solid play, and she's real confident out there. We like the situation as it's falling into place."