The University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team is looking to protect its home court and bounce back after a disappointing weekend at home against a pair of ranked opponents.
The first match of the weekend will extend the Badgers’ (13-4, 1-3 Big Ten) streak of five consecutive matches against a ranked opponent when they face No. 25 Michigan State (14-2, 2-2) Friday night.
This follows UW’s home affairs with Penn State and Ohio State last weekend, where the Nittany Lions swept the Badgers and the Buckeyes took three of four. Senior Alexis Mitchell had six blocks in the loss to Penn State and added eight more against Ohio State, and she will have to control the net in a difficult matchup against the Spartans’ strong hitters.
Sunday afternoon, Wisconsin faces an unranked Michigan team (14-4, 2-2) tied for fifth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines implement a balanced attack, which includes Molly Toon, the sister of former UW football star Nick Toon. Toon is fourth in kills for the Wolverines, averaging 2.23 per set.
The Big Ten’s power is shown in the current top 25 rankings, with seven teams ranked, three of them in the top 10.
Although this Wisconsin has had a rough 1-3 start to the conference slate, it continues to work hard in hopes to return to contention.
“The biggest strength [of this team] is their determination,” head coach Pete Waite said. “I think they really want to do well in conference and be one of the top teams in the conference, but it is a battle and they all know that.”
And the Badgers need to sustain a high level of play to stay competitive in their Big Ten matches.
Waite has changed the practice schedule a bit from that of the past several weeks to try to keep the team fresh during such a grueling stretch of the season.
The team was determined to not to let its performances against Ohio State and Penn State define the rest of the season.
“If anyone loses, they are pretty upset, but especially on our home court,” sophomore setter Courtney Thomas said. “It is just, ‘What do we need to do to fix it? Why are we losing?’ We just came back Monday and worked really hard to look forward to this weekend.”
Thomas has controlled the offense, leading the team with 55 assists over the two matches, in addition to seven matches where she has recorded 10 or more digs and assists. Thomas added a pair of nine-dig performances against Penn State and Ohio State.
Annemarie Hickey, a junior defensive specialist, has been a consistent defender for the Badgers so far this season. She has tallied double-digit digs in her past seven matches, which includes three matches with at least 20 digs.
Hickey and her teammates play each team twice, so there remains plenty of work left in the conference season. But the grind of the season might not be the only thing wearing on the team at this point in the season.
“As you get into the Big Ten [season], you have already been at it for at least a month,” Pete Waite said. “Things start wearing on them with school going on.”
Wisconsin rode an 11-game winning streak into this rough two-week stretch, and the team has played well on the road, where it has recorded most of its nonconference wins and notched its first conference win at Northwestern.
But home wins have not come as easy. In hopes of getting back on track, the Badgers have set out a few key areas to work on in practice.
“One of the things we need to work on is having a lot more confidence and just playing together as a team,” Hickey said.
With many of the small things getting fixed this week, the team is as prepared as ever to start a successful run in Big Ten play.
“We took care of [pre-conference play] like we should. Conference play, we had a good first weekend,” Waite said. “A win on the road, that’s a good thing. [Playing] the No. 1 team in the country was rough. They took it to us pretty well. We are pretty much where we want to be, but now we have to get things on track and get a split on every weekend in the Big Ten.”