The infamous border battle will commence Wednesday evening at the Field House as the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team takes on the No. 14 Minnesota Gophers.
The Gophers lead the all-time series 4-3 and won both matchups last season, 3-1 and 3-0.
Both teams are coming off weekend losses to Nebraska and remain tied in Big Ten play, as both currently hold 4-4 records. The Gophers had more success against Nebraska than the Badgers, winning the first two sets but eventually losing 3-2. Despite the impressive performance, head coach Pete Waite and the Badgers intend to treat Wednesday like every other match.
“We’ll have to be as solid as we can on our side of the net,” Waite said. “We know Minnesota’s a really strong team; they are a top 15 team right now, and they are always one of the top in Big Ten.”
A glaring statistic from last season’s meeting with the Gophers was the blocking ratio of Minnesota’s eight to Wisconsin’s one. The Badgers have improved their average from 1.86 blocks per set last season to 2.50 so far in 2011. The Gophers trail the Badgers at 2.10 in that category.
“If it is 8-1 this time, it’s going to be tough for us because they are so strong offensively,” Waite said. “We are a bigger team than we were last year and more disciplined on the block, so hopefully we will even those numbers out a little bit more.”
Minnesota’s front line of defense limited Wisconsin to a .066 hitting average in the previous matchup. The Gophers shut down the Badgers’ top guns, preventing any Wisconsin player from breaking double digits in kills for the night. Dominique Thompson was the closest with nine kills despite good ball distribution from senior Janelle Gabrielsen, who finished with 27 assists.
“We are just going to keep working on different shots,” Gabrielsen said. “They do have a tall team, so maybe not always the same shot so we can still get kills and make their defense keep guessing.”
Waite hopes that the new additions of freshmen Ellen Chapman, Courtney Thomas and Crystal Graff will help bring consistency and diversity to Wisconsin’s offense.
“We have been much more balanced,” Waite said. “Last year, we would have, sometimes, two players who would have good hitting percentages after a match. Now, sometimes there are five in a very balanced attack, and that’s made us better.”
Another staple of Minnesota’s defense comes from its back row anchor, senior libero Jessica Granquist. Granquist had 14 digs against the Badgers last time and averages 4.72 digs per set this season. Aided by her middle blockers, Tori Dixon and Ariana Filho, Granquist is coming off of a match-high 20 digs against Nebraska.
“We will hit more towards the setter so they are out of system and we can easily guess where they are going to set,” Gabrielsen said. “It’s hitting shots that [Granquist] won’t be able to dig.”
A potential threat from Minnesota’s offensive line is outside hitter Ashley Wittman. Like Granquist, Wittman had an incredible game against Nebraska with 22 kills. Last season, Wittman managed 10 kills against Wisconsin, and so far this year she leads the team with 4.62 kills per set.
“I don’t know that [Wittman] is someone you contain,” Waite said. “We’ll do the best we can to serve tough and try to keep them out of their offense a bit. But she’s a powerful hitter with a lot of shots.”
Digging out Wittman’s attacks and passing accurately are aspects of the game that the Badgers struggled with during their last encounter with the Gophers. Gabrielsen hopes that she and her team will be more precise from the back row on Wednesday night.
“I think that when we pass well, we win games, and so if we can pass the ball on the money every time, I think we’re going to win,” Gabrielsen said.