The No. 15 Wisconsin volleyball team endured a challenge that no other team in the country has faced this season. Spanning the last few weeks, the Badgers (17-5, 6-4 Big Ten) completed a six-match streak of ranked opponents last Wednesday, a test that no other team in the country has encountered this season.
Wisconsin finished 3-3 in that stretch, including the first time in program history the team has defeated back-to-back top ten opponents.
With the team entering the second half of league play this weekend, Wisconsin currently sits tied for fourth place in a Big Ten conference with seven ranked squads and three others receiving votes.
The Badgers have beaten five ranked opponents this year, including four in the Big Ten. This is the most victories over ranked teams since the 2006 Badger squad recorded six top-25 wins.
Junior outside hitter Ellen Chapman said this is not a position most teams expected Wisconsin to be in at the start of the year.
“I don’t see ourselves as an underdog, but I know starting the season off everyone saw us as an underdog,” Chapman said. “Now that they realize how good of a team we actually have, they’re starting to scout us more and take us more seriously — that’s going to make our job a little bit harder.”
A highlight of Wisconsin’s difficult stretch of matches was the two straight victories over then No. 5 Michigan State and No. 7 Minnesota. In the win over the Golden Gophers, the Badgers tallied the second-most kills and third-most assists of any match they have played this season.
Chapman said she wasn’t surprised at Wisconsin’s performance over two high-caliber teams — she said if the team plays to its full potential, it can beat anyone in the conference.
Senior libero Annemarie Hickey said wins over two of the best teams in the league does not come close to the expectations the team has yet to fulfill.
“Those two wins were great, but we can do a lot more,” Hickey said. “This team has a lot to prove; we’re just going to keep working harder and harder each week to prove [to] everybody that we are a great team, and that we’re not going to fall flat the second half of the season.”
An important change from prior seasons and prior months has been Wisconsin’s surge in confidence. Head coach Kelly Sheffield said he has seen a competitive fire in players like Chapman and junior outside hitter Deme Morales that was previous lacking.
In wins over then No. 14 Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota, Wisconsin had lost the first set by at least five points, but the team bounced back to take the second set in each match. Against Michigan State and Minnesota, Wisconsin proceeded to win three straight sets after the game one stumble.
Sheffield said in recent weeks the team as a whole has displayed an increased willingness to battle and an overall better feistiness during matches.
“I’ve been really, really impressed with our ability to get after it every match,” Sheffield said. “We’ve really been ready to play every one of our conference matches. That’s really hard, and it’s not something every team is doing.”
Now in her third season, Chapman said this is the highest level of volleyball Wisconsin has displayed in her career. With the arrival of Sheffield at the helm of the program, she said there is a sense of effort and determination on the team she has never seen before.
“Our togetherness is way better than it has ever been in the past two to three years,” Chapman said. “Everything on the court is just different — the mentality is different, we’re all trying our hardest out there. [With] the second half of the season rolling around, none of us are going to give up on anyone. That’s very different from what’s happened in the past.”
Battling back during matches and after tough losses has become the name of the game for Wisconsin during the past three weeks. Before defeating Michigan State, Wisconsin was swept by No. 16 Michigan at home. The Badgers also dropped a match to Illinois 1-3 on Sunday — a contest in which Wisconsin outscored Illinois in every offensive category.
Sheffield said in the Big Ten, there is not much separation of teams near the top and bottom of the conference. Illinois has undergone the toughest schedule in the country this year — it is the only team in the top 75 of the RPI with a record below .500.
Even though the Badgers are coming off the toughest streak of matches in the country, UW’s schedule doesn’t let up in the team’s remaining 10 games. Wisconsin faces six ranked opponents in its last 10 matches, including a rematch with No. 16 on the road this Saturday.
Sheffield said if the Badgers are playing at the high level that he expects, no opponent is too difficult an obstacle to tackle.
“I think we’ve got talent,” Sheffield said. “I think all of us think we can win, think we can beat anybody. We’ve got a lot of confidence in ourselves.”