The Wisconsin volleyball team opened up its Big Ten season this weekend with two dominating victories against respectable conference opponents.
Friday night the Badgers (8-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) took on previously undefeated Michigan State in the team’s first Big Ten contest of the season.
The first game saw the two teams evenly matched and battling for each point in a closely contested game. However, UW was able to capitalize on many errors committed by the Spartans, and took the first game 30-24. Wisconsin was led in the first game by a seven-kill performance by junior OH Erin Byrd and a five-kill performance by senior MB Sherisa Livingston.
The tandem of Byrd and Livingston was especially strong the entire match, as they led UW to a 30-18 victory in the second game. The two combined for more kills in the first two games than the total number of kills executed by Michigan State for the entire match.
The Spartans took the third game 30-25, after changing their lineup to try to neutralize the dominating UW front. The tactic worked for MSU, but Wisconsin head coach Pete Waite countered the lineup changes in the fourth game. UW took the fourth game 30-20, and the match 3-1.
Waite commented on his team’s progress after two weeks off from competition and the teams first appearance in the Field House since a disappointing loss to Northern Iowa Sept. 8 at the Badger Invitational.
“I am really happy with our progress from last time on the court here,” Waite said. “We worked on some things in the gym to be a better team and it showed tonight.”
Waite also emphasized the many individual areas in which his Badgers excelled in their first conference game of the season.
“We were more disciplined in a lot of ways,” Waite said. “Our blocking was more disciplined, we had more disciplined defense … just all the basics we talk about each week.”
Waite also praised his team’s serve as a major factor in the victory. Junior OH Lori Rittenhouse tied her career high with five aces on the night.
The Badgers took on the Michigan Wolverines Saturday in the Field House. Michigan came to UW with a 3-4 record, with three of their losses coming against ranked opponents. Wisconsin dominated the match early on, and continued that domination throughout the evening. Wisconsin took the first game 30-13, behind the six-for-six kill performance by sophomore OH Lisa Zukowski and the strong defensive play by sophomore Korie Gardner.
The second game saw more competitive play and a better overall performance by the Wolverines. However, Michigan was unable to stop the offensive front of Byrd, Livingston, Zukowski and senior setter Lizzy Fitzgerald, as UW won that game 30-24. Fitzgerald commented on the stellar offensive play of her teammates.
“We did a great job; all the hitters stayed pretty consistent last night,” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone stayed ahead and stayed aggressive, and I think we wanted to keep that aggressiveness coming into tonight [against Michigan].”
Much like the night before against Michigan State, the Wolverines changed their lineup in the third game. This again proved to be a successful strategy against the previously unstoppable offense of Wisconsin, and Michigan took the third game 30-24. However, also like the night before, UW regrouped and came out in the fourth game energized and aggressive. The Badgers took the game 30-17, and the match 3-1. Although extremely pleased and proud of his team’s performance over the weekend, Waite expressed concern over Wisconsin’s inability to close out both teams in three games.
“We did a lot of things very well,” Waite said. “It’s just the third game is one we have to work on. That’s one of our goals, to try to get that third game and be done in three so we don’t have to worry about a fourth.”
Despite not closing out both teams in three games, the team and staff feels very happy about the wins, and confident about future Big Ten matches. However, UW has their work cut out for them in the race for the Big Ten title: Ohio State, Northwestern, Penn State, and Minnesota all opened up their conference weekends with sweeps over opponents, and are all undefeated in the conference. Byrd stressed the high level of competition Wisconsin is likely to see in their next two months of conference play.
“Our conference is that good,” Byrd said. “That if you are good in the Big Ten, you’ll be good in the nation.” Wisconsin is currently ranked ninth in the nation, and is joined in the national rankings by Penn State (sixth), Ohio State (fifteenth), and Minnesota (seventeenth). Next weekend the Badgers travel to Indiana and Illinois for their first away Big Ten games of the season.