After an unsuccessful start to the second half of Big Ten play, the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team returns home with no shortage of motivation to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The Badgers are coming off of back-to-back losses on the road. Despite grabbing the second set from No. 3 Illinois last Friday, Wisconsin came up short and lost 3-1. Two days later, the Badgers took Northwestern to five sets but were unable to secure a win and lost 3-2, falling to 5-7 in conference play.
The Badgers will start the homestand today with a match against Ohio State. The previous meeting between the two teams was uplifting for the Badgers, as they upset the then-No. 24 Buckeyes for the first time since 2009. Wisconsin took an early lead and carried the momentum through the first two sets. A 14-2 Buckeye run in the third set and eventual win prevented the Badgers from sweeping Ohio State at their home gym. However, Wisconsin rallied in the fourth set and secured the 3-1 upset victory.
The circumstances of this Badger-Buckeye showdown are very similar to those of their match earlier this year. Just as it was last time, Wisconsin is coming off of back-to-back losses.
Senior captain Janelle Gabrielsen hopes that she and her team will use the losses as motivation to come back strong.
“It’s our house; we have been away for a couple of games,” Gabrielsen said. “We did get them at their house, and we know that they are going to come back and want to get us at ours. We’re hoping to not let that happen.”
Previously, the Badgers held the Buckeyes to a .171 hitting percentage. Since then, all three of Ohio State’s top guns have been averaging much higher statistics. Kelli Barhorst is hitting .324 to lead the team, followed by Emily Danks at .282 and Mariah Booth with a .232 average.
Last time, Danks gave the Badgers the most trouble as she scored 14 kills. Also, Barhorst outblocked Wisconsin’s leading middle blocker, Dominique Thompson, 7-3.
This weekend, Wisconsin tallied fewer blocks than both of its opponents. Despite Annemarie Hickey’s notable defensive effort at the libero position, the lack of blocking allowed the top outside hitters from both Northwestern and Illinois to score 19 kills each.
“We work on improving on every error that we can,” head coach Pete Waite said about Wisconsin’s preparation for this weekend. “We have to be stronger as a team. We are working on our blocking and our defense, so overall this is the same as all the Big Ten weekends: We work on improving our side of the net.”
Waite and the Badgers are hoping to have another successful encounter with Ohio State and also improve their performance against Penn State this time around. Wisconsin’s last attempt to defeat the four time defending national champions was trumped by a Nittany Lion sweep in their home gym.
The Badgers kept things close throughout the entire match, never allowing Penn State to run away with an enormous lead. Despite holding the Nittany Lions to a .154 hitting percentage and closing the gap with a 7-1 run late in the third set, Penn State showed their national champion worth and closed out the match, 3-0.
“Penn State is a physical team,” Waite said. “Very big, big jumpers, very strong, and they put a lot of stress on us with their serves. The biggest thing is that we serve receive well, keep our offense going and as we can, defend as we have been and battle with them.”
The two most physical presences on Penn State’s side of the net are outside hitter Ariel Scott and middle blocker Katie Slay. Scott is currently fourth in the Big Ten, averaging 3.97 kills per set. Last time against the Badgers, Scott scored on 12 kills.
Slay is ranked nationally in hitting and blocking at 12th and 13th, respectively. Her hitting percentage is .769 and she averages close to two blocks per set.
Knowing they are facing two very strong teams for the second time has forced Waite and the Badgers to strengthen not only their game strategy, but their mindset and attitude as well.
“Mental toughness is always important,” Waite said. “No matter who your playing, you have got to be tough. That comes in every single play. Volleyball is a game of mistakes. People make some great hits, some great serves then you’re going to make a mistake here and there. You have to let it go, move on to the next play and be positive about it.”