Coming off the first two games of a four-game road set, the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team brought home valuable experience playing against two ranked conference foes.
They also brought home a win.
Playing in their second consecutive match against an opponent ranked in the top 10 last Friday, Wisconsin fell to the No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions in three sets 18-25, 20-25, 22-25.
In the second match of the weekend, Wisconsin upset No. 25 Ohio State 25-16, 25-20, 21-25, 25-20. The win marked the Badgers’ first victory over the Buckeyes since 2009 and the first win over a ranked opponent since defeating Northwestern in 2010.
“We felt we were gaining on Penn State as each set went on, but for some reason we really couldn’t close a set,” head coach Pete Waite said. “When we got out on the court against Ohio State everything was clicking and they were playing as a unit. I think the fact that we had the day off in between and got in a good day of training helped in our turnaround. The players really just wanted to get the wins this weekend no matter who we were playing.”
And those wins have not come easy.
The young Badgers are getting an opportunity to test their mettle against the Big Ten’s best, as the conference boasts seven ranked teams in the NCAA Top 25. In three of the Badgers’ last four matches, the team played against a ranked squad.
Despite losing to both of the top 10 teams they have played this season, the Badgers have hung tough throughout the matches, including their match against the top-ranked team in the nation, Illinois.
The squad is only gaining confidence from their battles against the best the conference has to offer.
“I think the team’s felt that confidence against Penn State and Illinois this season,” Waite said. “We made Penn State work for things, and that just gives you confidence you can play with people considering they’re the four-time defending national champion. There’s no doubt they’re gaining confidence; our match against Ohio State was the best I’ve seen the group play so far.”
Confidence can be inspired for Wisconsin from their balanced offensive performance this weekend, as three players posted double digit kills in a match over the weekend.
Freshman Crystal Graff posted double digit kill totals twice with 11 against Penn State and 14 in the win over Ohio State. Another strong spot for the squad was the play of libero Anne Hickey, who posted double-digit dig totals in both weekend matches.
Areas of concern Waite has stressed all year for the Badgers is service and serve receive. Against Ohio State, Waite was pleased with what he saw, as the Badgers only committed two receiving errors compared to the 10 they committed against Penn State.
“Against Ohio State our service was top notch,” Waite said. “We had players with some service aces and our reception errors were very low, and that was key and that’s something we worked hard on Saturday to prepare for our Sunday match. Both those areas are always essential if you want to win. Against Penn State, our serve receive wasn’t as strong as Sunday.”
What will be important for Wisconsin down the stretch is consistency. The Badgers have shown flashes of brilliance against top competition all season but will need to continue to limit their errors that have plagued them throughout the year.
For Waite it all comes down to the mental toughness of each player to make the difference in every game throughout the season.
“I think a lot of mental toughness is needed to be consistent throughout the season,” Waite said. “Each individual and group develops it on their own along the way. Sometimes they learn the hard way with losses when they don’t expect it, but the great players and teams battle back and keep fighting.
“I think we have some tough kids on our team who really want to win, and they’re working hard every day to take their game to the next level. That’s important because as they improve individually we play at a higher level as a group as we walk onto the court for matches.”