Wisconsin (23-9, 21-8 Big Ten) earned the No. 12 seed in the tournament and will host its first round match Friday night against in-state rival Milwaukee at the UW Field House. If Wisconsin were to defeat Milwaukee, it would move on to Saturday’s second-round match to face the winner of North Carolina and California.
With the Badgers making their 17th overall NCAA tournament appearance and fourth place finish in the Big Ten, head coach Kelly Sheffield said there has been an obvious sense of enthusiasm with the team since Selection Sunday.
“[We’re] fired up,” Sheffield said. “[We’re] excited — it’s a new season. It’s what you want to be a part of. You realize that you’re doing something that the majority of the country isn’t doing.”
The Badgers finished their regular season winning four of their last five matches, including back-to-back road victories over top 20 teams in Michigan State and Michigan.
Sheffield said it’s easy for a team’s energy to dry up at the end of a grueling regular season, especially in the physically demanding Big Ten conference. But he said the team’s post-season prospects have breathed more life into an already determined Badger squad.
“I thought the past few weeks, for the most part, we’d been playing really well,” Sheffield said. “I think we’re getting better, which tells me we haven’t played our best volleyball. You get a little worried when at the end of the year if you run out of gas — our kids haven’t run out of gas. Mentally, they’re fresh, they’re excited. I think we’re in a really good place.”
Wisconsin is familiar with its first-round opponent. UW defeated Milwaukee 3-1 on Sept. 14 during the InnTower Invitational Tournament. Wisconsin held the Horizon regular season and tournament champions to a .140 hitting percentage, forcing three Panthers into negative hitting territory.
Milwaukee’s senior middle blocker Rachel Neuberger and 2012 All-Horizon League player only had seven kills against Wisconsin early this season, but she registered seven of Milwaukee’s 10 blocks. The Panther’s leading attacker in junior outside hitter Julie Kolinske, who averages 3.28 kills per set, managed 15 kills in four sets against the Badgers.
Milwaukee last made a NCAA tournament appearance in 2011, its 10th appearance overall, when the team was knocked out by Iowa State in the first round.
Senior libero Annemarie Hickey said there’s some comfort playing a team that Wisconsin has already beaten this year. She said there is also a sense of relief in not having to travel to an unknown gym this weekend.
“Just having our fan support here is really great,” Hickey said. “They’re really fired up that we’re back in the Field House.”
Wisconsin will most likely face a talented North Carolina squad on Saturday if UW wins on Friday. No. 15 UNC finished the season with a 27-4 record and with three Tar Heels earning All-ACC honors.
As the only senior on the team, and with this NCAA tournament her final chance to extend her collegiate volleyball career, Hickey said this is the time to let everything go and have no regrets about how she approaches this weekend. But she said it’s a relief that she can play at least once in the tournament.
“[There’s] a lot of pressure off of my shoulders,” Hickey said. “[There’s] just a lot of excitement. The first thing I thought of was, ‘When can we get in the gym? When are we going to be able to play and practice so we can take on our next opponent?’”
For Wisconsin, however, the pressure of performing is far from over. Even upperclassmen, like junior outside hitter Ellen Chapman, said they may feel the butterflies in their stomachs when they step out onto the court on Friday night.
“I think I’m going to be a little nervous,” Chapman said. “I know that our whole season is riding on these games that we’re playing. Every point is going to mean so much more … we know if things don’t go our way, our season’s over.”
Chapman said she hasn’t even watched the annual Selection Sunday in the previous two years — she knew Wisconsin would not be one of the 64 teams announced to play in the postseason.
But this season, Chapman and the whole team watched intently to discover Wisconsin would host the first two rounds of tournament play, surprising Chapman.
She said the team reacted to witnessing its first NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons with ecstatic hugging, jumping and screaming.
“Everyone’s just been so jacked up these past couple of days,” Chapman said. “It’s really exciting.”