The Wisconsin women’s volleyball team will defend its home at the Field House for the second consecutive weekend with matchups against Michigan and Michigan State.
The Badgers are hoping to extend their success after a weekend against tough opponents like Ohio State and Penn State. Despite getting off to a strong start and taking the first game, Wisconsin lost its third straight conference match to the Buckeyes 3-1 last Friday.
However, the resilient squad was able to bounce back and not only take on the defending national champions, the Penn State Nittany Lions, to five sets, but come out on top. This was the Badger’s first five-set win of the season. The two teams traded sets all the way through the fourth. Then, Wisconsin went on a 7-1 run and never gave up the lead.
Freshman setter Courtney Thomas and the rest of the Badgers are happy to have an extra confidence boost but still remain humble.
“It was good for us, beating Penn State is awesome,” Thomas said. “It gives us another win that we needed but just beating them doesn’t give us other wins, so we have to come out strong this weekend.”
The Badgers’ first opponent is Michigan. Wisconsin was successful against the Wolverines at their home gym in Ann Arbor earlier this season, beating the then No. 18 squad 3-1. The Badgers’ strong offense and blocking helped them upset their second ranked opponent, and with the help of Ellen Chapman’s 12 kills, the Badgers nearly doubled the Wolverine’s hitting percentage.
Led in blocks by freshman Crystal Graff and Alexis Mitchell with six blocks apiece, Wisconsin out blocked Michigan 16-10.
Head coach Pete Waite was pleased with his team’s consistency and composure last time around and hopes that Graff’s absence won’t affect that same rhythm his players maintained during the previous encounter with the Wolverines.
“The biggest thing is staying tight as a team,” Waite said. “Each player has to do what they can to help their teammates out. When they do that, their chemistry starts building and building, and they really are a tight group and they play some really good ball.”
The solid and consistent play will be key, especially when defending against Wolverine outside hitter Alex Hunt. Hunt, a senior, previously scored on 15 kills against the Badgers and has had double digit kills in 17 matches, shining even against top ranked opponents such as Nebraska, where the senior tallied 22 kills and 17 digs.
Hunt receives the ball from freshman setter Lexi Dannemiller. Dannemiller is a three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week and has recorded 10 double-doubles so far. The freshman distributed 45 assists in her last meeting with the Badgers and averages 11.63 per set. With Hunt and Dannemiller at their best, Waite expects a much different Michigan team this time around.
“I think they were off their game a little bit,” Waite said. “I think we caused some of that, but they are also a very good team. As we watch them on tape, we can see that they are playing some good ball now. Alex Hunt is an All-American who almost scores at will, so we really need to pass well when she is serving and defend well when she is attacking.”
Wisconsin will also see strong attacking from Michigan State on Saturday. Previously, the Badgers were defeated 3-1 by the Spartans at their home in East Lansing. Wisconsin fell behind early, losing the first two sets.
Despite a 34-32 win in the third set, the Badgers couldn’t hang on during a 6-3 Spartan run in the fourth game to secure the match.
Redshirt senior Jenilee Rathje leads the Spartans. The 5’11” outside hitter had a monstrous 26 kills against the Badgers and averages 4.36 kills per set. She is assisted by sophomore setter Kristen Kelsay who adds 6.32 assists per set.
“The biggest thing for any team is serving tough and attacking in strong ways so that their setter can’t get to the ball so easily, and I think we have been doing a great job of that,” Waite said. “But Rathje is a good athlete. Some players are going to get their kills. Sometimes it’s a matter of limiting their teammates, and hopefully we will be able to do that.”
Playing well defensively will be very important for the Badgers this weekend, especially going up against tough attackers like Hunt and Rathje. Thomas recognizes that defense may be the difference for Wisconsin.
“Defense is a really big key,” Thomas said. “Obviously against Penn State we out-dug them so that was great. We can see that if we play really good defense we can run our offense pretty well and come out with a win.”