At the halfway mark of Big Ten play, the Wisconsin volleyball team (13-9, 5-5) has already matched its conference win total from last year, and after already facing six opponents in the AVCA Top 25, the Badgers will once again face a Big Ten giant.
To open up the second half of its conference schedule, Wisconsin will travel to play No. 3 Illinois (20-1, 9-1) and Northwestern (11-10, 2-8) on the road this weekend.
Illinois is currently coming off its only loss of the season, a 3-1 defeat at the hands of now-No. 1 Nebraska. The Illini boast the top RPI in all of volleyball, as the squad has beaten five of the six ranked teams they have faced so far this season.
Wisconsin and Illinois have already met once this season, as the Badgers fell to the Illini in straight sets, 3-0, at the Field House in September. Wisconsin committed 22 attack errors, nine service errors and six receiving errors in that match.
The Badgers will hope to eliminate any free points in their match with the Illini.
“I think our serving and passing game really hurt us last time,” freshman Ellen Chapman said. “They’re a tough serving team, so we’ll have to work on improving our serve receive. Coach has been stressing it — if you don’t start off with a good pass you can’t run anything.”
The Badgers will also have to fight against a talented Illini front line, including second-team All-American Colleen Ward, who led the Illini with 12 kills in their previous matchup with the Badgers. Ward, a second-team All American a season ago, is seventh in the Big Ten in kills per set with 3.71.
But Ward doesn’t lead the Illini in kills. Rather, her teammate and fellow third-team All-American Michelle Bartsch does with 3.93 per set, good for sixth in the Big Ten.
Besides these two outside hitters, Illinois also boasts one of the tallest front lines in the Big Ten. The tallest of these players is 6-foot-6 freshman Liz McMahon, who along with teammate Erin Johnson, rank in the top 10 of the conference in blocks per set.
“[Head coach Pete Waite] has stressed to stay aggressive and be consistent,” junior Bailey Reshel said. “We don’t have room for error against a team like Illinois. Last time we got down really fast and with a team like that it’s almost impossible to get back.”
Coming into Friday’s match, the Badgers are a different team than the one Illinois faced previously. Wisconsin has also received a plethora of experience throughout the Big Ten slate and continue to show signs of improvement in every match.
“I think we’ve improved the most on a combination of ball control passing and our quick attack,” Waite said. “Our middles are putting up better numbers, and our offense looks much better than when we first started. Now our team has seen each team and (has) an understanding of some tendencies of some players. The second time around the conference should be a little more comfortable for some of the younger players.”
The Badgers are also entering their second match without freshman standout Crystal Graff, who went down last week against Minnesota with a knee injury. While the injury to Graff will keep her on the sideline for the remainder of the season, offensively, Reshel has stepped in smoothly for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin will look to finish the weekend strong, as the team travels to Evanston, Ill., to take on Northwestern.
Although Northwestern is struggling this year the Wildcats still have talent. Sophomore Stephanie Holthus ranks fourth in the Big Ten in kills per set and points per set. Northwestern is also a solid defensive squad, holding opponents to the third lowest hitting percentage in the Big Ten.
“We can’t let up at all this weekend,” Chapman said. “We will need to finish the games. We’ve been doing drills in practice to get us in that mindset. Finishing is a big thing we want to improve on in the second half.”
“I think throughout this season we’ve came together as a team. We mesh so much better than we did in the beginning of the season. There were a lot of plays where we were all over the place. Now things are starting to flow, and we’re becoming the team we know we can be.”