After smooth sailing through the nonconference season, the Wisconsin volleyball team must prepare for a challenging Big Ten schedule starting with the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats Friday in Evanston.
The Badgers (12-1) wrapped up the nonconference schedule by winning the Georgia Southern Eagle Invitational tournament last weekend. The team is currently riding an 11-match winning streak heading into Big Ten play.
Despite dropping only a single match during nonconference play, Wisconsin’s competition is about to escalate considerably. In claiming the Georgia Southern Eagle Invitational last weekend, the Badgers defeated four teams with a combined 16-40 record. In the team’s opening Big Ten weekend, Wisconsin will face a perfect Northwestern squad (11-0) followed by the No. 20 Illinois Fighting Illini.
Head coach Pete Waite, who earned his 300th victory as Badger coach last weekend, is well aware of the rising level of competition but remains confident in his returning starters to rally the team.
“It’s always a step up [and] we know that,” Waite said. “Everybody’s bigger, stronger, faster, but I think our team is prepared for it. You just can’t give away easy points. You’ve got to take care of the ball well on every possession, just like football and basketball, and you’ve got a good shot at beating anybody.”
Wisconsin’s toughest test will come Friday against Northwestern, when it attempts to defend two of the most explosive offensive players in the Big Ten.
Junior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus is tied for second in the conference with 4.84 points per set and contributes 4.20 kills per set, good for fourth in the Big Ten. Her setter, senior Madalyn Shalter, leads the conference in assists per set and was named Big Ten Setter of the Week for the second straight week.
Waite has been impressed with the Wildcats’ dynamic duo and said they will be a main emphasis of the Badger defense.
“Holthus has a ton of shots,” Waite said. “She’s not a huge player, but she jumps really well. [She has a] fast arm, hits the ball in every spot on the court. You’ve got to serve tough to keep them out of their offense. … [Holthus and Shalter] are definitely the two focuses for us.”
Waite even compared the play of Shalter to one of professional basketball’s all-time legends.
“You know how it is with Michael Jordan,” Waite said. “You’re not going to stop him, but you can stop everyone else.”
Wisconsin will need a steady defense in order to contain the Northwestern offensive attack. Wisconsin ranks third in the conference in opponent’s hitting percentage as well as blocks per set with 2.86.
Senior outside hitter Mary Ording leads the defensive front for the Badgers with 1.29 blocks per set, placing her seventh in the Big Ten. She was crowned MVP of the Georgia Southern Eagle Invitational last weekend and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week earlier in the month.
Ording said blocking is an area that will prove important against tough conference opponents.
“Blocking is something that I’ve always really enjoyed doing, and something that I am getting a lot better at,” Ording said. “I think, especially with bigger hitters, harder attackers, it’s harder to get the teams in bad situations, so the harder that I can work side-to-side on blocking, the better for the people standing behind me.”
Senior middle hitter Alexis Mitchell is second in blocks for the Badgers with 1.07 per set while also posting a .408 hitting percentage on the offensive end. Along with sophomore outside hitter Deme Morales, Mitchell earned all-tournament honors at the Eagle Invitational.
Mitchell’s philosophy on succeeding in conference play begins and ends with a full team effort.
“I think that we’re just focusing on playing hard and being a team,” Mitchell said. “We’ve really had a theme of outworking other teams, and that’s how we’ve gotten a lot of wins, is just when we’re fighting and playing hard.”
A recent trend of the Badgers has been to have solid nonconference seasons but to struggle in more difficult conference play. In 2010, Wisconsin went an undefeated 11-0 in nonconference play yet finished 10th in the Big Ten with a 5-15 record.
Despite the downward spiral in Big Ten play for recent Badger squads, Mitchell had a positive outlook on the conference season.
“We’re excited about it,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had a good preseason, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve just gotten better every match of the preseason. It gives us a lot of confidence going into this weekend.”