The Wisconsin volleyball team will leave the comfort of its own gym for the first time this NCAA tournament for a matchup against No. 16 Florida State in UW’s first round of 16 since 2006 Friday in Champaign, Ill.
With Florida State taking out in-state rival No. 5 Florida and Purdue knocking off No. 4 Missouri, the 12th-seeded Badgers are the only seeded team left in its region.
However, the three other squads in the region, which consist of Florida State, Purdue and host Illinois, were all ranked in the top 20 in the last poll of the season.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield said this section of the bracket will be a “gladiator session” with the high level of play the teams have reached.
“All four of these teams came in playing their best volleyball,” Sheffield said. “To me, that makes it a lot more exciting … you’ve got four teams that all feel like they’re King Tut – that’s how it should be.”
Sheffield said the Florida State offense is diverse and quick and that the entire team has solid post-season experience – the Seminoles reached its first NCAA tournament Final Four in 2011, and the current team has four players from that roster.
Florida State owns a 1-2 record against Big Ten teams this season, falling to Illinois and Ohio State and beating Michigan.
Sheffield said one of the biggest tests his team will face this Friday is against Florida State’s aggressive and huge front row, a unit that averages 2.77 blocks per set – good for 21st in the nation.
“They’re going to be a handful, especially up there at the net,” Sheffield said. “It’s going to be a challenge for our players to be able to A. slow them down and B. for us to score points against them because they’re big. They look good – they’re legit.”
Freshman setter Lauren Carlini also praised the physicality of the Seminoles’ front line. She compared the Florida State front row to Michigan State and Minnesota, teams that Wisconsin has beaten this season.
Carlini said the keys to beating Florida State’s defensive concrete wall is serving tough, hitting smart shots and working around the block.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year said it’s been easy of late, working with an offense that hit better than .400 in each of its first two tournament matches.
“Our passing has been almost spot-on,” Carlini said. “It’s been pretty easy for me to distribute the ball and kind of get a balanced offense going. I think that’s one of the important parts to our game plan.”
Both Carlini and junior outside hitter Ellen Chapman were named to the Northeast All-Region team for last weekend’s performances. Carlini accumulated 79 assists, nine digs and eight kills in the two matches, and Chapman tallied 26 kills while hitting .390.
White hot Florida State is currently riding an eight match winning streak, with six of those contests resulting in sweeps. But Carlini said Wisconsin is feeling just as assured in its chances on Friday.
“We’re really confident as a team,” Carlini said. “We’re starting to get a little bit of swag about us. We just swept two really good ball clubs. Everyone’s just really pumped about how far we’ve made it so far.”
The Badger defense has cruised in its last few matches as well. It is averaging 3.67 blocks per set in its last three contests, almost a block and a half better than its season average and more than triple the blocks of their opponents in that stretch.
Senior libero Annemarie Hickey led the Wisconsin back court with 28 digs in the combined six sets last weekend.
Hickey said the key for the Badgers against a monstrous Seminole attack will be leaving every ounce of effort on the floor on Friday.
“Just being in the right spots and [getting] stops on defense at the right times,” Hickey said. “Just being really aggressive – defense is one of those positions where you have to be really aggressive and scrappy to keep the ball off the floor. I think that’s going to be a key for us this weekend.”
If Wisconsin defeats Florida State, the team will play either Purdue or Illinois on Saturday in the Elite Eight. Hickey said they are eager in seeking revenge after falling to Illinois at home on Oct. 27 and losing a gut-wrencher in five sets to Purdue six days later.
But Sheffield doesn’t doubt the talent and determination in his team, saying he has not seen better play from the Badgers all year.
“Every one of our players, right now, is playing better right now than they have at any point in the season,” Sheffield said. “When you’ve got your team that’s all moving northward, then you can do some special things.”