Derek Montgomery

After compiling a 6-2 non-conference record — capped off by a three-match sweep of the InnTowner Invitational — the Wisconsin volleyball team will kick off its 2004 Big Ten season this weekend against a pair of nationally-ranked and undefeated teams.

The Badgers will play the No.20-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (10-0) tonight at the UW Field House, before hosting the No. 4-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (9-0) Sunday.

Despite opening up conference play against two of the best teams in the Big Ten, Wisconsin head coach Pete Waite likes his team’s chances.

“I would say anytime we have a home game, starting out the Big Ten season at home is really good,” Waite said. “These are tough teams coming in. But I like the way our team played last weekend, and I think they’re really up for the challenge.”

A focal point for the Badgers in their matchup with the Buckeyes tonight will be limiting the impact of senior outside hitter Stacey Gordon.

Gordon, a three-time All-American and the Big Ten’s all-time leader in Player of the Week awards (11), is fresh off an MVP performance at last weekend’s Buckeye Classic — during which she averaged 6.67 kills, 2.75 digs and .50 blocks per game.

“We just have to make a routine knowing that on every play (Gordon) may get the set,” Waite said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of that the last couple of years, keying on her. I think we’ll be ready to stop her as much as possible, but she’s going to get her kills. She’s a great hitter.”

Gordon is the go-to player on the Buckeye attack, but Ohio State has a number of dangerous offensive threats.

Senior Maya Mapp and freshman Danielle Meyer provide OSU with a strong presence in the middle, while setter-turned-outside hitter Briana McCarthy gives the Buckeyes a versatile option to compliment Gordon on the outside.

“This year [Ohio State] has a lot of hitters,” Wisconsin co-captain Aubrey Meierotto said. “It’s not so much just [Gordon]. Whereas in the past I think she’s definitely been their strongest hitter, and the one to really focus on. But this year I think their offense is a lot more spread out, so we’re just going to have to be really disciplined in our blocking.”

“Ohio State brings a lot more balanced lineup than they’ve had in the last year or two,” Waite added. “They’ve got more players that can be more offensive on the court: A new setter, a new middle (blocker), a new left side and there’s a lot of people we haven’t seen yet. So, we have to be really aware of what we’ve seen on tape and try to take advantage of some of that.”

Tonight’s match will have added significance, as it will mark the 14th annual Steve Lowe Night — honoring the former Wisconsin head coach who died from cancer in 1991.

“I knew Steve when I was coaching at Northern Illinois, and he was here,” Waite said. “He was a great guy and brought this program up to the level it is now. He really took them from being nowhere in the country to being well respected. He was a great person that really loved the game, enjoyed being around the team and was a great role model for all the coaches around. I think our players don’t know as much about his legacy, so we try to educate them and let them know what he meant to the program and how they can honor him by coming out and playing a great match.”

The Badgers’ match against Ohio State will begin at 7 p.m. tonight, while game time for Sunday’s match with Penn State is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Both contests will be played at the UW Field House, and admission to Sunday’s match is free with a ticket stub from Saturday’s Wisconsin football game.

According to Meierotto, the team has been looking forward to this weekend and opening up conference play.

“It’s just fun to get into conference (play), because you’ve been training so hard in preseason, playing all these other teams and getting to where you want to be,” she said. “And now it’s the real test: seeing where you stand in the conference. So, I think everybody’s looking forward to it and is really excited.”

Coach Waite, like his junior co-captain, is also excited for this weekend’s conference matches and is looking to get the Badgers’ 2004 Big Ten campaign started on a good note.

“It’s hard to predict where we’ll finish (in the Big Ten standings),” Waite said. “I think a lot of teams have the opportunity to be in the top three or four, and that’s where we want to be. We want — at the end of the season — that shot at the title. We know it starts with this weekend. We have to come out really strong, protect our home court and really fight for that win.”