Maybe it was the luck of the Irish, or maybe it was the long grind of a two-day tournament and the conclusion of a 12-game non-conference schedule.
Whatever the reason, the Wisconsin volleyball team’s win streak fell short Saturday night in the championship game of the InnTowner Invitational, as the Badgers fell to Notre Dame in consecutive sets, 22-25, 22-25 and 23-25.
Wisconsin felt the sting of poor starts throughout the match, as Notre Dame benefited from UW’s errors, taking 6-0 and 7-0 leads in the final two sets.
Even though Wisconsin finished 8-4 in its non-conference schedule, head coach Pete Waite knows that from this point on, team errors must be limited if the Badgers hope to climb the Big Ten tables.
“It’s vital to limit any errors,” Waite said. “There are matches you need to play nearly flawless volleyball to play at the same level of these top teams, but at the same time I’ve seen us do that. The past four weeks I’ve watched our team progress to higher and higher levels, which is really exciting for our staff and me as a coach.
“We just have to get rid of those short term lapses that can cost us games.”
Even though the slow starts against Notre Dame hurt Wisconsin’s chances of winning the tournament, the Badgers responded resiliently to work their way back into sets, including a 9-0 run in the second set to retake the lead from the Irish, 9-6.
“We had some slow starts to a couple of those sets and didn’t finish them off when we retook the lead,” Waite said. “We were just too streaky. It was amazing to see us get down six points and put nine points on the board in a row; it is a very rare occurrence in this sport. If you eliminate those flat starts, we’re doing some great things.”
The Badgers gained confidence from the experience of rallying from behind, but it’s a spot that the team hopes to avoid with a clear head and steadfast demeanor.
“I think you do feel a sense of urgency because you know with rally scoring you can’t dig yourself in too deep of a hole,” junior Alexis Mitchell said. “We really can’t panic because that’s when errors happen and things go wrong. You just have to take it upon yourself to do your job, and if everyone focuses on that we should be able to get out of holes.”
And according to freshman Crystal Graff, while comebacks prove to the team that they can hang with their opponents, she would still much rather see an overall consistent game from Wisconsin.
“I think as far as a team, we need to work on finishing our matches, and that comes with the focus of playing consistently,” Graff said. “We had two games where we were down five or more and came back, so obviously we’re able to play with those types of teams, but we need to eliminate that inconsistency.”
The Badgers hope to learn from their mistakes this past weekend by focusing on consistent aggression within their style of play during sets. Mitchell voiced concerns that, at times, the squad became weak from its approach in tight spots.
“I think our errors come a lot from when players get tentative and try to keep the ball in and play it safe,” Mitchell said. “It’s really just learning how to be aggressive even when you’re down. It might be game point for the other team, but you have to just go after it. It takes a while to get used to that, but you want to continue an aggressive approach on the floor.”
It’s a diagnosis Waite agrees with.
“In ways they have to get that out of themselves,” Waite said. “They have to hate the feeling of playing that way enough to fight it to be great and aggressive. You need to work to achieve that constant feeling of constant excellence. Each individual player always has to have their top game throughout the match because you aren’t just giving easy points away when you get tentative; you’re giving momentum and confidence to your opponent.
“The bottom line is it will come down to competitiveness; they will have to be hungry for every single point and every single play. Once you get that down, the sets and matches will take care of themselves.”