Back from another weekend on the road, Wisconsin’s volleyball team began Big Ten play with a four-set victory against an unbeaten Northwestern team Friday and followed it with a five-set loss to No. 20 Illinois Sunday.

Head coach Pete Waite, whose team now sits at 13-2 and 1-1 in Big Ten play, was pleased with the team’s performance to start off conference play.

“I like what I’m seeing, they are progressing well, [the] Big Ten is here,” he said at the weekly press conference Monday.

On Friday, UW displayed its progress by battling back from a 23-18 deficit in the third set to win 26-24 and take a 2-1 lead over the Wildcats. The Badgers went on to close the match with a 25-23 victory in the fourth set.

“That was a really good road win for us,” Waite said, “I think it just showed [that] the team has come together and is pretty gritty, and that they’ll fight until the end.”

Against Illinois, however, the team fell short, dropping the fifth set 15-9 and putting an end to its 11-game winning streak. The loss reminded the so-far winning Badger team they still have small areas in which they have to be more consistent late in the game.

Despite the loss, the team showed determination by forcing a fifth set after being down 15-10 in the fourth game to the 2011 national title runner-up.

“I thought we had a good shot at them,” Waite said. “That was a team that was in the national championship last year, and we nearly got them in five games but fell a little bit short.”

Another positive of the weekend’s games came from strong individual play from sophomore Courtney Thomas and junior Annemarie Hickey. Thomas, the 6-foot tall setter, picked up her sixth and seventh double-double of the season while recording a career best 57 assists against the Fighting Illini. She averaged an impressive 12.56 assists and 2.44 digs per set on the weekend.

Hickey, the 5-foot-8 libero, also stood out by returning to the top of the Big Ten rankings in digs per set, leading the league in all matches with 4.92.

Wisconsin will be relying on Thomas and Hickey’s strong play as it looks to extend its unbeaten record at home this season when Big Ten powerhouses Penn State and Ohio State come into town Friday and Saturday.

“We’re up to the task,” Waite said, “I think our defense is solidifying, and they’re excited about playing. We’re not afraid about playing these teams coming up.”

According to Waite, the key to playing a Penn State team standing between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6 will be ball handling, speed and attacking the block. Waite also said he will put more defensive focus on the left side this week in practice to prepare for Penn State’s strong left side attackers.

The Nittany Lions will be looking to beat the Badgers at home, something they were unable to do last year.

“A year ago, they were a very young team – just like we were,” Waite said. “Just like we’ve matured, they’ve matured … for us we have to play real consistent ball, real aggressive, real confident and go after them just like we did here last year.”

As Wisconsin looks ahead to the rest of the Big Ten season, its head coach anticipates tough competition and exciting play.

“It’s just going to get better and better, more exciting for our fans,” Waite said. “Players have to step up so that’s going to make you better too … you don’t really find out about [where you stand] until you’re against the Big Ten teams because they’re all just bigger, faster and stronger in every way.”

The Badgers will take on Penn State this Friday night at 7 p.m. and will be honoring former head coach Steve Lowe with the 22nd annual Steve Lowe Night. Lowe coached UW’s volleyball squad from 1986-90 and led the program to its first-ever Big Ten championship in 1990 before dying of lung cancer in 1991 at age 35.

They will be playing the No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday at 7 p.m. Both games will take place at the UW Field House.

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