After a four-set comeback victory on Friday and a heartbreaking five-set loss Sunday, the University of Wisconsin volleyball team solidified its reputation as one of the Big Ten’s most unpredictable teams.
The erratic Badgers (16-9, 4-8 Big Ten) were just two points shy of mounting a stunning comeback win against the Northwestern Wildcats (15-8. 4-8) after they lost the first set by a whopping 14 points.
Wisconsin beat Northwestern in late September in Evanston, marking the team’s first conference win of the season.
Head coach Pete Waite said in the Big Ten, any team can win or lose on any given day depending on that team’s consistency.
“It’s definitely disappointing to take that loss today,” Waite said. “We rode a roller coaster of level of play. We were really good at times and just off at other times.”
While Wisconsin’s overall attack percentage was a respectable .191 for a tough league match, the team’s actual efficiency spanned the gamut throughout the match. UW put up a meager -.062 percentage in the first set with eight errors, a set in which Northwestern sustained distinct offensive runs of five, four and seven points.
However, the Badgers returned the favor against Northwestern in a dominating third set, finishing with a .344 hitting percentage in a convincing 25-9 win.
Waite said the players need to have a stronger sense of urgency for the duration of the match to sustain more consistent play.
“It’s up to the players,” Waite said. “They know they’re very capable of playing really good ball. They’ve got to go after things with an eagerness and confidence of wanting to be great and hating to feel like this.”
UW found itself in an eight-point hole early in the second set, self-imploding with unusual miscommunication errors and mishits on defense. The team created an 11-4 run midset and completed the comeback with senior middle blocker Alexis Mitchell powering three kills in the last five points of the set.
After creating promising momentum in the fifth set, Wisconsin lost its grip on a two-point lead late in the set with Northwestern winning six of the final eight points of the match.
Mitchell, who led the Badgers with 19 kills in the match, said nerves and little sense of resiliency factored into the team’s struggles late in the final set.
“[In] the fifth set, things can change really quickly,” Mitchell said. “I think that we maybe got a little bit tense when we were at that point, and some bad things happened, but we just have to do a better job of bouncing back right away, because it does go really fast … the momentum swing can change with just one play.”
Early struggles start with Fighting Illini
Wisconsin had another rocky first set against the Illinois Fighting Illini (10-12, 4-8 Big Ten) Friday night. After taking a commanding 10-3 lead, UW collapsed as Illinois spurred a 14-4 run en route to a first set victory.
The Badgers took the preceding three sets, with junior outside hitter Julie Mikaelsen racking up career-highs with 19 kills and eight blocks in the match.
Mikaelsen praised sophomore setter Courtney Thomas for her accurate passing and helping her find critical gaps in the Illinois defense.
“Courtney did a really good job setting me really fast balls,” Mikaelsen said. “The blockers on Illinois had problems getting out … so I had a big seam every single time.”
Wisconsin managed strong starts in all four sets, which has not been the case for this team in recent matches. The Badgers jumped out to an 11-5 lead in the second set and a 9-5 advantage in the fourth.
Waite said the team played well in the beginning of sets largely due to hurry-up drills in practice.
“[During] the last couple of days, we ran a drill that was just more of a fast-paced time drill that I think they got something out of,” Waite said. “They realized you don’t have time to think, you don’t have time to walk around; you just have to hustle … I think it paid off.”
Although Wisconsin committed its fair share of errors with 31, compared to Illinois’s 20, it did not surrender its lead in either the second or the fourth set.
Waite said a goal of the team this season has been to let go of errors players have made in previous points.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, is to come back, forget those errors and stabilize,” Waite said.