Entering Sunday’s match against the nation’s No. 3 three-ranked squad, the Wisconsin volleyball team had little room for error.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin (9-5, 1-1) could not win a set against Illinois (13-0, 2-0), as the Badgers fell in consecutive sets, 25-18, 25-17, 25-22. Wisconsin’s eight service errors killed momentum at key times throughout the match against Illinois, who trailed only twice in the entire match.
“I’m not sure if our team was pressing and trying a little too hard,” head coach Pete Waite said. “Illinois is just very solid top to bottom between their serving and their serve receiving. They have really nice players across the front line that hit high shots off the block. When we were passing well we were staying with them just fine, but our passing broke down against their serving. Again, this is a young group on the court and sometimes they just have to learn with trial by fire.”
The service of the Illini wreaked havoc on the Badger system, as Wisconsin struggled to recover against well-placed Illinois serves throughout the match. Illinois recorded six service aces against Wisconsin, who failed to register even one.
“We have to work on serve receive,” Waite said. “We’ve been working on it, but sometimes teams are just hot and moving very well. If we want to play with anybody we have to clean that up.”
Although the Illini front line totaled just one-half block more than the Badgers (7 to 6.5), Illinois’ height continuously disrupted Wisconsin. Illinois’ senior combination at outside hitter of Colleen Ward (12 kills) and Michelle Bartsch (10 kills) led the Illini to a .213 hitting percentage compared to the Badgers’ .133.
“Illinois is probably one of the best in the country at blocking,” junior Alexis Mitchell said. “My approach was getting up quick and fast. Coach Colleen [Bayer] was talking to me before the game about beating their blocks with my speed. I think the setters set the ball high enough for me to put it down effectively. For me, it was hitting smart shots and making them play the ball.”
Mitchell shined bright in the loss, as she led Wisconsin with 11 kills on her way to an eye-popping .500 hitting percentage. Mitchell’s performance was only an extension of her solid play on the weekend, as she racked up 11 kills Friday to help Wisconsin sweep Northwestern in consecutive sets, 25-23, 25-21, 25-22.
It was a significant win for Wisconsin, considering the poor luck the program has had in the past. Waite and his Badgers had not won a Big Ten opener in four years, helping to effectively shed any conference jitters early in the season.
“It was great,” Waite said. “I think Northwestern’s a good team. The last few years, their teams have been some of the best they’ve had in recent memory. We passed better that match and ran our middle offense much better, as well. We just have to learn how to play like we’re not afraid of anybody because we can play with anybody.”
Waite was also complimentary of Mitchell’s role over the weekend.
“She had back-to-back matches this weekend that were very strong and that’s important as she matures for us,” Waite said. “She brings athleticism and confidence to the court and we need to feed off of that.”