From the first point of Sunday’s match, Iowa could tell Wisconsin’s front line meant business. Junior Alexis Mitchell opened up the first set with a powerful kill that served as a moment of foreshadowing for the rest of the match.
The Badgers received four strong contributions up front as Mitchell, sophomore Dominique Thompson and freshmen Crystal Graff, Ellen Chapman and Courtney Thomas contributed eight or more kills each in a 3-0 sweep of the Hawkeyes. The group combined for 44 kills to recover nicely from its match with Nebraska two days earlier. The Wisconsin front faced a sterner challenge Friday, as the No. 5 Huskers allowed the Badgers just 33 kills.
“It was really important for us to be strong against Iowa up front,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to be aggressive at the net and bounce back from the Nebraska match. Our setters and hitters connected the whole match, and I think our setters did a great job [Sunday].”
The Badgers’ attack did indeed benefit from strong passing throughout the Iowa match as the squad recorded 45 assists as a team. Leading that effort for the Badgers was Thomas and senior Janelle Gabrielsen, as the pair recorded 23 and 19 assists each.
“The middle has been really important to us this year,” Thomas said. “When our passing is really good and we can run Alexis [Mitchell] across the floor, our team is completely different with our energy and everything. When Alexis gets a kill, it obviously brings a lot of momentum to our team.”
Mitchell provides spark
Mitchell continued to be electric for the Badgers as her strong emotional play led the Wisconsin attack Sunday. Mitchell gave the Badgers life in key moments throughout the Iowa match, most notably in the middle blocker’s murderous kill to win the second set for the Badgers, 25-22 — a set that featured eight tied scores and five lead changes.
“It’s really important to bring that emotion into a match,” Mitchell said. “Every match, you need to bring that to the floor because every team in our conference can stomp on you if you’re not upbeat. When you play with energy, it really brings your game out and your teammates up. Everyone starts to have a good time and the crowd gets involved, and it really puts a damper on the team on the other side of the net.”
It seemed that any time Iowa was beginning to make a run, Mitchell was there to squash any momentum, topping off any kill or block with a yell.
“Our team is very quiet; we have a lot of quiet people on our team,” Thomas said. “So obviously when the energy is brought, especially when we lose three or four points at a time, when Alexis brings that energy it completely changes our game around. We could go from being down five points to the lead because of her. She’s a big factor in that energy.”
True grit: Badgers battle in close sets
Even though the Badgers were swept by the Cornhuskers Friday, the team showed determination and persistence in battling throughout the first and third sets to make it a fight, losing two sets by only four points.
Against the Hawkeyes Sunday, the Badgers battled again through two tough sets. In the second set, Wisconsin allowed Iowa to crawl back from an early four-point deficit but held on for good after a kill by Crystal Graff made the score 14-13. The Badgers never looked back, weathering a late Hawkeye run.
In a third set that featured 12 tied scores, eight lead changes and a 16-12 Iowa lead, the Badgers gradually wore out the Hawkeyes and claimed the lead for good at 22-21.
“I liked the fact that the girls came back from behind this weekend,” head coach Pete Waite said. “I didn’t like the fact that they allowed some runs. There were times where we had a big surge, and we allowed a big surge to the other side. That’s where we have to improve as a team, not allowing our opponents runs like that.
“There were times where I thought we didn’t start playing hard until we were challenged and had to play from behind. That gives me a heart attack any time I’m watching that. I know they don’t try to do that, but they have to work hard to stay on top and force the pace of the opponent.”