The Wisconsin volleyball team is in no way easing into conference play this year, as two tough matches against Big Ten opponents loom this weekend.
Wisconsin (8-4) opens Big Ten play at home against Northwestern (9-2) Friday, while the second match of the weekend slate pits the Badgers against the nation’s No. 3 team, Illinois (11-0) Sunday.
Northwestern will enter Friday’s contest riding a four-match win streak. In the those four wins, the Wildcats’ set record is an impressive 12-1. The Wildcats have also won three of the four tournaments they have played in, including the Utah Classic, the Chicago Challenge and the Wildcat Classic in Evanston.
Boasting strong outside play, Northwestern is led by sophomore Stephanie Holthus, who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team last year. The sophomore leads the Wildcats and the Big Ten with 187 kills through 37 sets, giving Holthus an impressive 5.05 kills per set ratio, also tops in the conference.
“Northwestern has a couple strong players returning for them,” UW head coach Pete Waite said. “Holthus is a great outside hitter and a ball control player who spent some time with the USA program. They’ve got some new faces, but they’ve got some nice athleticism and talent out there. Their libero, Julie Chin, is also a solid player for them.”
Chin averages just under five digs (4.95) per set for Northwestern, tying her for the third-best ratio in the Big Ten. Chin will look to make kills difficult for the Wisconsin attack.
“We definitely want to focus on tough serving,” senior Janelle Gabrielsen said. “Forcing them back deep in the corner will help because those are the hardest balls to pass. They’ll be out of their system, and they’ll be easy to defend. We also are looking to improve our serve receive, so we’ll focus on staying in our system and pounding them on offense.”
The Badgers will have Saturday to recover from their contest with Northwestern, as Wisconsin welcomes third-ranked Illinois to the Field House Sunday.
Illinois’ roster carries a tremendously tall front line, with only one outside hitter under 6-feet. Two players of note for the Illiniosans are junior middle blocker Erin Johnson and redshirt junior setter Annie Luhrsen. Johnson currently holds the second-best hitting percentage in the conference at .418 percent, while Luhrsen looks like one of the conference’s premier setters, leading the Big Ten in total assists with 515 through 43 sets.
“You have to stay aggressive against tall blockers like Illinois has,” Waite said. “Actually, a big blocker can be a great target to hit at. As long as you stay aggressive and go after them, you’re fine.”
Waite also recognizes that Illinois’ physical play has been a major contribution to the Illiniosans’ early success in their 11-match win streak.
“Illinois has some very physical players on the court,” Waite said. “Michelle Bartsch, who was a rightside hitter for a long time, is playing left side now and putting up some big numbers. They’ve got Colleen Ward as one of the outside hitters who’s very strong and doing a good job this year. You go down the roster and they’ve got good strong players and they’re very deep. We had a good battle with them last year, and I expect the same thing Sunday.”
For Gabrielsen, victory in these first two conference matches will be a simple matter of the Badgers playing their own game efficiently.
“I think it’s a matter of us doing what we need to do,” Gabrielsen said. “We need to cut down our errors and take full advantage of theirs. We need to build off their mistakes. In games this year we’ve had momentum early and lost a point, and that brings us down. We need to rally off some early points to take control of the sets and hopefully the matches.”
“All the teams we’ve played so far we’ve respected,” sophomore Annemarie Hickey said. “But the Big Ten is a more competitive conference top to bottom, so we need to go out with a different mentality now. We have to step up; we can’t get down like we have in recent games. It’s important to bring it early against tough teams in the conference.”