After then-No. 11 University of North Carolina bested the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team to end their perfect 5-0 start, few people expected to see the Badgers back in the top three of the polls less than two weeks later.
Despite that loss, an ankle injury to junior outside hitter Lauryn Gillis and a trip the following week to take on then No. 2 Texas and No. 16 Texas A&M, the Badgers dug deep and put themselves back on track in one of their best starts in recent memory.
The No. 3 Badgers opened Big Ten play with home 3-0 sweeps against then-No. 18 Ohio State University and University of Maryland to reach their second five-game wining streak of the year in only 11 games. After just the first weekend of conference play, the squad had five top 20 wins — with three on the road — and have only lost six sets in the same time period.
“If you’re going to be successful over a long period of time, you’ve got to be able to focus on what’s in front of you,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “This group, our players, are locked in and they’re almost wired to be that way.”
Going into the thick of conference play, the highlight of the still-young season for the Badgers came in Austin, Texas, against then-No. 2 University of Texas. Only two days after sweeping Texas A&M, Wisconsin fought back from a 2-0 deficit to topple Texas in thrilling fashion, 20-18 in the fifth set.
The win was enough to slingshot the Badgers back into the top three after only a week at No. 6, sending a shock wave through college volleyball that Wisconsin is back in the championship picture.
“One of the great things about this group is that we’ve left the past in the past,” Sheffield said. “We’ve moved on really well.”
When Gillis went down with a minor ankle sprain against the Tar Heels Sept. 9, the expectation was she would return in a few games and the squad would have to wallow in wait in the meantime. In what has now become at least a month long injury for Gillis, the squad flipped the script and excelled in front of the net behind the youthful dominance of Molly Haggerty.
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The freshman outside hitter first made a splash when the Badgers took on then-No. 6 University of Hawaii on the road in a dominant 3-1 win. Haggerty posted a match high 19 kills, earning her the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor. Haggerty made her biggest statement of the year, however, against the Aggies, setting a school record with 27 kills in the just three sets, cementing herself as a mainstay at the position going forward.
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“The thing that I’m impressed with Molly is that we’re not protecting her,” Sheffield said. “With a lot of freshman you worry about burying them and you look for opportunities to take some of the pressure off of them. We haven’t protected her at all.”
Haggerty’s breakout performance adds an incredible amount of depth for a team that already returning two All-Americans in senior setter Lauren Carilini and middle blocker Haleigh Nelson. With the veteran leadership of Carilini and Nelson in front of an emerging freshman class, the potential for the Badger program is higher than it has been since its national championship appearance back in 2013.
Despite the impressive 8-1 résumé in the non-conference play for Wisconsin, the importance of sweeping two solid Big Ten opponents to open the Big Ten schedule should not be underestimated.
The win over Maryland marked the 14th straight Big Ten win for the program and firmly placed the Badgers in a five-way tie for first in a conference that has consistently proved itself to be the gold standard in women’s volleyball.
“You listen to [Wisconsin head football coach] Paul [Chryst] earlier and it’s just about the same in this conference with just about any sport,” Sheffield said. “You feel like you’re given the same answers week after week; it’s a different jersey but it’s another ranked opponent. You throw one wolf out the front door, one out the back door and you’ve got another one coming in through the side window.”
The fortitude to rebound after a close loss in North Carolina and outlast a team like Texas in a hostile road environment will prove a major factor in the Badgers championship dreams going forward. That experience and depth of Wisconsin will only continue to get tested, however, as matchups with No. 1 University of Nebraska and No. 2 University of Minnesota await.