2010 was a season of mixed results for the Wisconsin volleyball team.
The Badgers jumped out to a promising 11-0 start, tying for the best start in school history. But the team couldn’t continue the trend, as it posted a 16-15 overall record to finish the season. The Badgers wrapped up their first winning season since 2008, but failed to reach the NCAA tournament and went 5-15 in conference play.
Many of the struggles in the Big Ten came from the Badgers’ lack of consistency in close sets, as the team went 6-12 in sets decided by two points. In 2011, the Badgers will look to polish their consistency in close contests.
“We lost quite a few sets by two points last season, and our goal is to turn that into wins,” head coach Pete Waite said. “Mental toughness is key to finishing off the long sets, especially late in the season.”
Lack of consistent results stemmed from an inconsistent starting lineup, as the Badgers used 12 different combinations throughout the season to adjust to injuries and inconsistent play.
“We’ve gone through injuries that made it hard to go through our business like we were used to,” Waite said. “Sometimes multiple injuries and youth make a big difference over the course of a long season.”
Waite’s squad was also one of the youngest in the conference. Carrying just seven upperclassmen on a team of 17, the Badgers will be in more or less of a similar situation, as only five upperclassmen fill the ranks of the current squad. With six new incoming freshmen, the team will be ripe with new faces and talent.
However, don’t be surprised if those new young faces make a big difference right away.
“The way volleyball is now at the high school and club level, it’s getting so much higher and closer to the college game,” junior Alexis Mitchell said. “We have a lot of freshmen that have played at the international level and a high level at club so they know the game extremely well. The only big adjustment for the freshman is a little faster game tempo and new teammates. The freshmen we have are definitely one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the nation.”
Chemistry will be one of the Badgers’ biggest issues in the early part of the season. While the team returns five key players, including senior captain Janelle Gabrielsen and Mitchell, the returning members will need to learn how to mesh with the younger players and their playing styles in the early weeks of the season.
“Chemistry is so important in volleyball because it’s not a sport you can do by yourself,” Mitchell said. “Not one person can get the job done; all six people on the court need to be flowing and working together at all times. You can get beat by any team that has great chemistry; if you don’t have it you can get beat any day.
Those words ring especially true in the Big Ten, where the competition is perhaps the stiffest in the nation. Entering the final week of August, seven of the 12 teams in the conference were ranked, including Penn State at No. 2 overall and newcomer Nebraska at No. 5.
“You have to be prepared for every team in the conference,” Gabrielsen said. “You always have to scout and prepare for every team. You can’t be unprepared for any team in the Big Ten the way it is with the level of talent and competition.”
With less than a month to prepare for the opening conference match against Northwestern Sept. 23, Wisconsin hopes to use its early non-conference matches to find its identity. By that time, the Badgers hope to have a solidified rotation and starting lineup to give them the consistency they lacked last year.
“Once we get into the Big Ten schedule, we want to have the same lineup so there’s a familiarity with each other’s play,” Mitchell said. “People on our team have really been fighting in these early games to show what they’re made of to earn a spot. It’s a time to prove yourself during non-conference play.”
“We know that coming into Wisconsin and every preseason, we are in the toughest volleyball conference in the country,” Mitchell added. “There is some stress there because we want to finish at the top and get back to the tournament, but we use it as motivation. Knowing we’re going up against great competition will only make us better, and we just have to have high confidence. With the top teams and Nebraska coming in, they may look at us as the team we were last season and think they can walk all over us, but they’re in for a surprise.”