When the Wisconsin women's volleyball team takes to the court for a match, it is no surprise what its opponents' game plan is: stop Badger All-American Sherisa Livingston.
Livingston, a senior middle blocker, was the instrumental force behind UW's runner-up finish in last year's NCAA tourney. This year, thanks to the coverage focused on Livingston, a new group of stars is beginning to shine. If you haven't heard of Lisa Zukowski, Jill Odenthal, Lori Rittenhouse, or Amy Hultgren, don't worry, you will soon. The four have stepped in and added a spark to an already burning flame.
In Wisconsin's second-place Badger Invitational finish three weeks ago, Zukowski and Rittenhouse stepped up and stole the show. Against Ball State, Zukowski recorded 12 digs and 21 kills. Rittenhouse, who did not want to be in the back seat, stepped up against Northern Iowa in the finals to tally 19 kills. Rittenhouse, a junior opposite hitter, is best remembered for her role in replacing an injured Claudia Rodriquez in last year's NCAA tournament. Her presence on the court as an outside right hitter led her to setting up assists, creating digs, and blocking attacks. Rittenhouse backed up her Badger Invitational performance last weekend when her change of serve proved the winning combination to knock out Michigan State.
“I changed my serve,” Rittenhouse said. “Instead of the short, hard ones, I tried to go back deep so I can get a piece of it more, get more float on it and it’s just working well.”
Although UW head coach Pete Waite noticed her serving, he was more grateful of the impact the rest of her game brings to the court.
“She’s become much more disciplined at the net,” Waite said. “Once we seal up that right side, it makes our defense that much better, also. It’s not just the blocks she gets, but the channels she gives to our diggers.”
Then this past weekend, in the opening of Big Ten action, true freshman Odenthal saw significant playing time and action. Odenthal recorded five kills that left Waite citing her for creating a much-needed jump start, after a third-game loss to Michigan State.
“[Odenthal] gave a great burst of energy late in the game,” Waite said. “She just gave us a real jump start, got the crowd going and scored some points.”
The final of the four, Hultgren, is a junior middle blocker who transferred from the University of Texas. In her first year out of a Longhorn uniform, Hultgren has made her impression in the form of 53 kills, eight digs and a .246 hitting percentage.
Although all four have the talent to contribute highly to the Badger's defense of last season's Big Ten championship, their rawness is still evident. Zukowski needs to keep her consistency. Against Michigan State she had a negative .150 hitting percentage. Rittenhouse is prone to illness, which has limited her use at times. Both Hultgren and Odenthal are new to the team, which requires adjustments either from the high school level or, in Hultgren's case, the conference level (She played in the Big 12).
Despite the wrinkles that may need to be ironed out at times, expect these names to create plays that leave Badger fans yelling: “Point…Wisconsin!”
Blood runs thicker than water: This weekend, when the Badgers hit the road for Big Ten action against Indiana, sophomore defensive specialist Korie Gardner will get to face off with her older sister, junior setter Laurie Gardner. It is the third year in a row that it has been a Gardner vs. Gardner affair. Former Badger defensive specialist Jamie Gardner, who graduated last year, has faced Laurie twice in her career.
The best rivalry that never happened: Badger football was not the only sport affected by the cancellation of NCAA events two weekends ago. UW, which was scheduled to host the InnTowner Invitational, was supposed to slate up against Central Florida. Had the matchup occurred, senior setter Lizzy Fitzgerald would have had the chance to play against the team coached by her sister Meg. Meg, a former Florida Gator, has never coached against Wisconsin.
Linear Action: With the latest AVCA volleyball polls released, the Badgers have stayed on the same track as last week. Despite opening the Big Ten season with two victories, UW remains ranked ninth in the polls. They fell to ninth from third after losing to Northern Iowa. The defending NCAA champions, Nebraska Cornhuskers, remain atop the polls for the fourth-straight week.