The Wisconsin volleyball team will continue the second-longest opening road trip in program history with a weekend tournament in Rhode Island.
Wisconsin will play Boston College, Rhode Island and Columbia in its third consecutive invitational tournament away from Madison. The Badgers will look to build on their success from last weekend’s victories at the North Carolina State Invitational, where Wisconsin took two out of three matches, including a close five set loss to host N.C. State.
In last weekend’s tournament, the Badgers used all 17 members of their roster, a strategy the team will most likely continue to experiment with as it analyzes the individual talent of each player and develops chemistry between the entire squad.
“Our team this year is a lot different than last year, just with the lineups we’re going with and the dynamics of our team,” junior Alexis Mitchell said. “It’s important that the veterans communicate a lot with the freshmen because we do have a lot of them on the court this year. Right from the start, we need to work together because we are playing tough teams in the preseason.”
One of the young guns that has been impressive for the Badgers is freshman Crystal Graff, who was named to the All-Tournament Team at the North Carolina State Invitational. Graff recorded 15 kills against the host Wolfpack squad along with 12 digs to record her first career double-double. She is one of three rookies in the starting lineup for the Badgers.
Senior Janelle Gabrielsen recognizes that this freshman class is different than most.
“I would definitely agree I think they came in prepared,” Gabrielsen said. “A lot of freshmen classes, sometimes when they are being introduced to the collegiate game, are a little nervous or rattled coming into the game. They are a very talented class. One of the freshmen, Crystal Graff, came in early and played with us throughout the spring semester, which really helped her improve. I’m excited to play with her in the next tournaments.”
Another great addition for the Badgers has been sophomore Annemarie Hickey, who has seamlessly made the transition to the libero position. Replacing graduated senior Kim Kuzma, who ranked third all time for Wisconsin in digs and digs per set, Hickey has quickly put her name into the ranks of an elite defender with her 33 digs against N.C. State last weekend.
“Hickey, as a freshman, started every match as [defensive specialist] last year,” Mitchell said. “She’ll fill Kim’s shoes just fine, she’s a great passer and great at defense. She’s stepped into the position easily, and as she matures more, the leadership part of it will come and she’s so important to have on the floor.”
“Obviously as we know, passing starts the play, so if we don’t have good passing we won’t be in the right positions and pin the other team down,” Gabrielsen said. “We have a great sophomore in Annemarie; she’s stepping up to the plate to fill that role, and she’s learning well, so we’re excited.”
Besides Hickey’s emergence in the Badgers’ defense, Wisconsin has seen strong improvement along its front line. Over the weekend, the Badgers averaged 3.41 blocks per set, a significant increase from last year.
It was an improvement that Gabrielsen had looked for before the tournament.
“We want to improve this year on our defensive blocking,” Gabrielsen said. “We know we can get the job done offensively, but it’s how we defend other teams that’s a deciding factor for us.”
“I think we have a lot of strengths. We have Ellen Chapman, a freshman, and she’s really tall. She’s 6-foot-5 on the outside, and Graff has been terrific on the back row and the front row. All of the returning players have been doing a great job, and we’re competing our hardest every day.”