Like most Americans last week, the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team did its best to cope with the tragedy that overcame the nation. Their solution — volunteer at the blood drive at the Capitol.
While some chose to volunteer, other members of the team opted to donate blood, including eight players who were first-time blood donors. After that, though, it was back to what they do best — playing volleyball. The week off gave the Badgers the rest and determination to open up the start of Big Ten play this weekend.
The start of the conference season pits Wisconsin (6-2) against an undefeated Spartan squad (7-0) and the barely .500 club of Michigan (3-3). Statistically, MSU appears the tougher of the two teams to hail from the state of Michigan, but Madison will be its first real test of the season.
The Spartans, who will be playing their first match on the road this year, has had a relatively easy schedule compared to the Badgers and Wolverines. While Michigan has played teams such as No. 5 Hawaii, No. 7 UCLA, and No. 19 K-State (all resulting in losses), MSU has played subpar teams such as Auburn, Idaho and Winthrop.
“It’ll be interesting to see if Michigan State is ready for the tougher level that [the Badgers] have been up against,” UW head coach Pete Waite said.
Leading MSU’s attack on the Badgers is outside hitter Erin Hartley. The senior has eight blocked shots, 56 digs, and 117 kills. Hartley is not the only star to shine on the team, though; junior defensive specialist Emily Engel has 30 service aces to her name thus far this season.
Aside from the aces, however, Engel has committed 25 errors on her service attempts. Rounding out the cast is sophomore setter Nikki Colson. In her first year as a starter, she already has 347 assists, which ranks her 14th-best in the nation.
Although the previous three players were members of the squad last season, the Spartans have seven true freshmen on the roster, which could be to their advantage because it makes MSU harder for the Badgers to scout.
“[MSU] has a whole new crew, setter, and tendencies that [UW] needs to get used to,” Waite said.
Michigan, on the other hand, is returning a bulk of the players from last season. To counterattack the Wisconsin game plan are middle blocker Erin Moore (61 kills, 42 digs), setter Lisa Gamalski (10.05 assists per game), and middle blocker Katrina Lehman (54 kills, nine service aces).
Wisconsin is led by all-American middle blocker Sherisa Livingston. She already has 147 kills this season and is 151 away from the UW record for career totals. Assisting in many of those kills is Lizzy Fitzgerald. The senior all-American setter is averaging 14.74 assists per game. Leading the charge from behind the line is the surprise performance of sophomore outside hitter Lisa Zukowski, who has 10 service aces in her breakout year.
Despite the level of play both opponents bring to the court, Waite is more focused on whether his team is ready for the perils of the Big Ten season.
“I’m more concerned about us and what team shows up on the court,” Waite said. “You really can’t predict [which opponent will be tougher]. Bottom line is, you just have to walk out onto the court and see how the teams match up. It depends on who is ready to play that night.”
The Badgers will learn which team is tougher this weekend at the Field House at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights.