It has been a long time for the Wisconsin volleyball team — since 2007 to be exact.
That was the last time the program reached the NCAA tournament, a destination head coach Pete Waite has taken the Badgers to nine times in his 12 years at the helm.
The nine tournament appearances for Wisconsin all occurred consecutively in Waite’s first nine seasons. Waite experienced his highest level of success when he took the Badgers to the NCAA championship in 2000, his second year as the program’s coach. Lately, however, the Badgers have failed to make the tournament for three straight years.
“I hate to say it, but injuries have really made the difference the last three years,” Waite said. “You have to have a lot of luck as you go along the way to make the tournament. We had a bump in the road when Crystal (Graff) went down this year, but Bailey (Reshel) has filled in nicely. I think we are on track this year; I’m seeing a lot of good things.”
With 64 teams invited to the tournament and 33 of those spots reserved for conference champions, the Badgers have been left out in the cold the last three years because of tough luck in their conference slate. The past three years combined, the Badgers are 18-42, going 7-13 in 2008, 6-14 in 2009 and 5-15 in 2010. This year, Waite’s squad is currently 5-7 in conference, but will need to turn it up a notch if it hopes to sneak into this year’s tournament.
“We’re going to have to rack up a few wins here coming up in conference play,” Waite said. “The good thing is a lot of the teams we’re playing are ranked teams. If we can get those ranked wins, it really boosts you up. With those wins, you move up in the conference standings, and usually five or six teams from the Big Ten go to the tournament. So we will be fighting and scraping to get one of those top spots.”
A tough conference and consequently difficult schedule seem to be both a blessing and a curse for the Badgers. The blessing of playing in the Big Ten for Wisconsin is in the plethora of ranked opponents the conference provides. The Badgers have already played ranked conference opponents seven times, winning two of those matches. Currently, the conference boasts six different ranked teams, making the Badgers climb to a potential at-large bid for the tournament a steep one.
However, the curse for Wisconsin in the upcoming month is its tough schedule. The Badgers face six opponents ranked in the top 25 in their remaining nine conference contests. Of the six matches remaining on the Badgers’ schedule against ranked opponents, four of them will take place in the the Field House. Currently sitting at one game back from fifth place, the Badgers will need to pull out some upsets at home if they hope to disrupt the current trend of missing the tournament.
“It’s all about us getting back to the way we played when we beat ranked teams like Michigan and Ohio State,” Waite said. “We have to take care of the ball and play tight as a unit. We have to have a single focus of what’s best for the team and what each person can do for the team. Once we do all of that, we can do some great things in this last month.”
In the ranks of the Badgers roster, not one of the 17 players has ever been to the NCAA tournament in her career. For players like Alexis Mitchell, that just adds motivational fuel to the fire to reach that elusive first trip.
“I’m a junior, and my first two years we didn’t make the tournament,” Mitchell said. “I was a younger, more inexperienced player, so I don’t think that affected me as much. Knowing that I only have one season left after this, I really want to experience getting back to the tournament, especially knowing we have the team and the weapons to get there.”
For one of the two lone seniors on Wisconsin, this November represents one last chance to taste the postseason.
“I think not being in the tournament and being a senior, knowing this is my last chance, definitely motivates me,” Janelle Gabrielsen said. “The seniors are trying to get that motivation we feel to rub off on the underclassmen. We just have to give it our all these last games.”
The leadership of the senior captains Gabrielsen and Elle Ohlander is something the young Badgers will have to rely on as the team prepares for a gritty last month of the season that will either make or break the Badgers’ tournament dreams.
“It doesn’t matter if you have been to the tournament or not,” Waite said. “If you battle every day in the practices, those results will show up during those weekend matches. In the next couple days, we have to crank up everybody’s intensity and really have the players battling for each other.”