Wisconsin women’s volleyball head coach Pete Waite has always spoken with pride about his team’s balanced offense. At any given match, a number of Badger attackers could lead the team in kills, making it difficult for opponents to anticipate which Badger will get the next set up.
This well-distributed offense has helped Wisconsin reach a 15-13 overall record and a 7-9 mark in conference play. Despite the losing record, four of the Badgers’ wins have been over ranked opponents, which is the most the program has seen since 2006. Waite attributed much of this success to his team’s ability to keep the defense guessing.
“When you have a balanced attack, it is really hard for a defense to key in on just a couple of players,” Waite said. “When we are setting all of our hitters, it keeps the defense off balance.”
The primary Badger attackers are outside hitters Ellen Chapman and Bailey Reshel, middle blockers Dominique Thompson and Alexis Mitchell, and setters and right side hitters Courtney Thomas and Janelle Gabrielsen. The Badgers have also seen good minutes from the bench with Elle Ohlander, Mary Ording and Julie Mikaelsen.
In 11 out of its 16 conference games, Wisconsin has seen two or more players tally double-digit kills. For the first half of conference play, freshman outside hitter Crystal Graff was often one of those players, pounding more than ten kills a night. However, a knee injury against Minnesota benched her for the remainder of the season.
In 63 sets, Graff racked up 166 kills and led the team with a .234 hitting percentage. When Graff’s spot opened up, Waite filled it with two players. Reshel took over Graff’s offensive position while Caroline Workman covered Graff’s back row responsibilities.
“Any player that comes off the bench is ready to come in and ready to play,” Gabrielsen said. “Although [Graff] is a really great player and we miss her a lot, [Reshel] definitely stepped in and stepped up. Every team has players that are hurt, but it’s whether or not you can overcome that adversity, and I think we are doing a great job.”
Since losing Graff, Wisconsin has won several big games over ranked opponents, including back-to-back victories against the defending national champions and No. 6-ranked Penn State and the No. 24 Michigan Wolverines.
Both Penn State and Michigan have one main offensive weapon that the Badgers had to contain. The Nittany Lions utilize attacker Ariel Scott, who has tallied 312 kills this season and has a hitting percentage of .257. Against Wisconsin, the sophomore got away with 23 kills, despite the Badgers’ 15 blocks. The Wolverines primarily ran their offense through Alex Hunt, who had 22 kills. Again, the Badgers out blocked the Wolverines 11.5 to six.
Badger middle blocker Mitchell notes that being carried by one player isn’t necessarily advantageous.
“I think it is great for those players who are able to do that, but I do think that a big disadvantage of that is that we can wear that player out,” Mitchell said. “They are getting a ton of reps, a ton of attempts. It’s also easier for your opponent to scout you. Teams can just camp out on that one person and take away the shots that they have.”
By distributing the ball to different players at all locations on the net, the Badgers keep their opposing defense playing honest.
“We don’t have other teams commit blocking us, so normally we are one-on-one, which allows everyone to get swings and kills,” Mitchell said. “It makes our offense run more smoothly.”
Several of the Badger hitters are close to reaching, or have already reached, career milestones in the kills category. Thomas broke the 200-barrier in kills against Michigan State, and Chapman is just 37 away from 300.
Ohlander, meanwhile, needs 21 more kills to reach 400. Gabrielsen will break 500 with 22 more kills, and the senior is also one block away from 200. The two setters, Gabrielsen and Thomas lead the team in double-doubles with 14 and 11, respectively.
With the Badgers’ kill leader changing from match to match, Gabrielsen is never out of options to set to. Mitchell, Graff, Thomas, Chapman and Reshel have all recorded the team high for kills in a conference match this season, often followed closely behind by a teammate or two.
“I also like to have a balanced attack, so I will switch it up and I’ll run plays for other people,” Gabrielsen said. “But when somebody is hot, I’ll run plays for them so I can try to get them in a one on one situation.”
In a rare occasion when a Badger hitter did record more than 20 kills, she was not the only player to record a double-digit statistic. Chapman led Wisconsin to a victory over Michigan with 21 kills. Even with that notable performance, the balanced Badger attack was still in effect as Mitchell came in with 11 kills, followed by Gabrielsen with 10. Both Thomas and Reshel chipped in nine in the upset over the Wolverines.
“If we have depth and we can count on people and trust them to go in and raise the level of our game, everybody feels more comfortable on the court,” Waite said. “That’s also how teams lose. If they make a sub or there is an injury, and someone comes in who doesn’t do their part, that’s usually where the points start slipping away.”