As the second half of the Big Ten season gets underway, the No. 20 Wisconsin volleyball team (16-5, 8-2) has a chance to clarify the conference title picture. Locked in a three-team tie with Minnesota and Illinois atop the conference standings, the Badgers take on the Golden Gophers (16-7, 9-2) Friday before traveling to Iowa City to meet the Hawkeyes.
Following home wins over Michigan and Michigan State, Minnesota jumped two spots to No. 23 in the most recent USA Today/AVCA poll. After a sluggish start to the 2003 season, the Gophers have caught fire recently, winning their last eight matches.
Leading the way for Minnesota is senior Cassie Busse. Nailing 4.76 kills per game, the 6-foot-2 opposite hitter also leads the Gophers with a .315 hitting percentage.
Juniors Trisha “Tree” Bratford (3.89 kills per game) and Erin Martin (3.38 kills per game) round out the offensive attack. Setting for them is 5-foot-10 Lindsey Taatjes, who averages 12.70 set assists per game.
6-foot-3 freshman Meredith Nelson leads Minnesota in blocks per game with 1.34.
UW is still stinging from a lackadaisical 3-2 home loss to the Gophers Oct. 12. Each of the last three meetings between the two teams has gone to five games, with the Gophers leading the all time series 29-23.
“Any time we play Minnesota, it’s a great rivalry, and I really think we let it slip away when we had them here at home,” head coach Pete Waite said. “It was more us breaking down in the fifth than them doing great things in the fifth game. I thought it was great how in the fifth game against Penn State we battled back — not just battled in the fifth, but we came from far behind. We know we can do it, and we’re going to need that kind of effort this weekend.”
Wisconsin will look to ride the momentum built in last Friday’s 3-2 comeback win over Penn State.
“I think it’s huge, it gives them the confidence that they can play with anyone in the conference, that they know they can come back,” Waite said. “They know that they are playing at a higher level as a team and making a lot less unforced errors than we did a month ago.”
Iowa, still searching for its first conference win, features 6-foot-2 junior hitter Laura Simpson who averages 4.01 kills per game. Defensively, libero Pam Kavadas pops up digs at a 3.32 per game clip. Coming off a highly anticipated matchup with Minnesota, the Badgers are hoping to avoid a letdown against the Hawkeyes Saturday.
“They know how important every match in the Big Ten is,” Waite said. “Just like we had a big win over Penn State, the next day we played an Ohio State team that was struggling as far as record goes. You have to come back and play every day at a high level just to maintain your spot in the Big Ten.”
There is plenty of familiarity between Wisconsin and Iowa, as the Hawkeyes have made two trips to Madison in 2003. In addition to the Badgers’ 3-0 victory Oct. 10, the Wisconsin coaching staff also got a look at Iowa at the InnTowner Invitational, though the teams did not play.
“I think we know that team pretty well,” Waite said. “Again, they’re a team that has been struggling to get the wins in the Big Ten conference, so it’s one of those teams that will battle because their backs are against the wall and they have nothing to lose at this point. If they get a win against Wisconsin, it would make their season.”