The average Wisconsin student sports fan is someone who loves football, basketball and hockey. He or she has been to Camp Randall and the Kohl Center. Two great venues, two great environments. There may be no college sports town as rowdy and rocking as Madison on any game day. Just ask Scott Van Pelt.
However, there is one large, storied venue at Wisconsin that remains largely unattended by Badger students. This venue has been the home of the Wisconsin boxing teams who established dominance in the nation from 1933 to 1960, winning eight national team titles and racking up 38 individual champions. This storied building previously hosted Wisconsin basketball and housed the 1941 national championship team, the only title-wining team in program history.
Today, Wisconsin’s Field House plays host to two UW teams, one of which is wrestling.
The Field House is as much a part of Wisconsin sports and lore as any venue in Madison today. But the history is not the reason to venture down to the Field House this November. Right now, a trip to the Field House is needed to check out one of the most interesting teams the University of Wisconsin has to offer this fall. It’s not the program that calls Camp Randall or the Kohl Center home.
The Field House is not just the home of the wrestling team, but also the Wisconsin volleyball team. This weekend is the best time to watch some premier volleyball action, as the squad is setting up for a weekend clash between two top-ranked teams in the conference, including current four-time reigning champion Penn State.
If you’re like most average sports enthusiasts, you played volleyball passively in gym, on the beach or in the backyard. While many high schools offer the option of competitive volleyball for girls, very few offer the option for men (only 51 high schools in Wisconsin). So chances are, guys, you have never seen an upper level match of competitive volleyball.
Prepare to be surprised when you watch the Badgers. Watching your first collegiate volleyball game is quite the treat. It’s hard not to be impressed with the fast pace, the speed and the power that these athletes display through three or more sets in the duration of a match. There’s nothing like a strong kill or close set to get the blood pumping.
For most of the students here (with the exception of graduate students and super seniors) the team has not made the NCAA tournament in recent memory. However, the team this year shows promise of breaking the three-year tournament dry spell, making the team a must-watch during the final month of the season.
Most current students are probably unaware of the traditional success the team has had in the last 10-plus years. Under head coach Pete Waite, Wisconsin has gone to nine NCAA tournaments in his 12 years at the helm, with the high mark being a loss in the NCAA championship match in 2000. The last three years have been the first that Waite’s Badgers have not made the NCAA tournament. This may have lead to a recent lack of knowledge by the current student body that Wisconsin volleyball is traditionally among the nation’s best.
This year, there is reason to believe that Waite has Wisconsin volleyball back on track to return to the postseason and long-term success. One of the reasons to believe comes from the Badgers’ success this year (13-11, 5-7) with an extremely young roster. The Badgers play three freshmen and two sophomores on the court. Freshman Courtney Thomas currently leads the Badgers with 12 double-doubles this season as well as a triple double — just the fourth Badger in program history to record the feat. Thomas is truly a talent to watch, as the freshman leads the Badgers in total assists, is second in total kills and third in total digs.
Another starting freshman that has thrived is Ellen Chapman. A 6-foot-5 outside hitter, she has led the Badgers in kills for seven consecutive matches. Chapman leads all Badgers with 199 kills this season.
Defense more of your thing? Look no further than Annemarie Hickey. The Badgers sophomore libero (for all of you non-volleyball followers out there, this is a player that is like a defensive specialist) leads the entire Big Ten with 4.75 digs per set. Hickey seems to cover the entire court herself as she dives and hustles across the floor, making impressive dig after dig.
But maybe you want more high-powered offense? Well, this team can give you that. Junior Alexis Mitchell is one of the most athletic players you can see anywhere. The middle blocker gets kills like Aaron Rodgers throws touchdowns. She also brings electricity to the gym with her signature high-energy play.
There’s the cast of characters, but what about the setting?
As far as the environment, the Field House is one of the best venues to watch college volleyball in the entire country. In 2010, Wisconsin ranked third in the country for average attendance per match, trailing only Nebraska and Hawaii. The Wisconsin-Nebraska match this season had the Field House packed to the brim.
If you like strong competition and close matches, look no further than Big Ten volleyball. The competition Wisconsin faces makes for some very entertaining matches. The teams the Badgers take on during the conference season are by no means cupcakes. In fact, it can be argued that the Big Ten is the best conference in volleyball, top to bottom. With seven of the 12 teams in the conference ranked in the Top 25, the Badgers face stiff competition in nearly every home match. The chance to see the Badgers upset a top opponent only adds to the reasons to watch this squad.
All that may remain for this team to take the next step is to simply make the NCAA tournament and get that first taste of postseason competition. In many cases, the experience of simply being there can trigger the desire and extra motivation to truly become elite.
But perhaps the best reason to watch this Badgers team is the fact that these players are only just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. With a roster full of so many underclassmen, the fact that the Badgers are in the hunt for the NCAA tournament is impressive by itself. Even though the team faces six ranked opponents this last month of the season, don’t be surprised if these young guns pull off a few upsets. The Badgers have the talent and the youth to be a very dangerous squad for the foreseeable future.
Nick is a senior majoring in history and English. Think there’s another sport besides volleyball going largely unnoticed this fall? Let him now at [email protected]