The University of Wisconsin volleyball team (14-4, 10-0 Big Ten) closed their non-conference schedule with back-to-back losses against Pac-12 powerhouse Washington, allowing their highest hitting percentage in Head Coach Kelly Sheffield’s seven-year tenure at Wisconsin.
They entered Big Ten play with zero home wins for the first time in over 30 years. That didn’t phase Sheffield.
“It’s exciting. Big Ten volleyball is nasty, and this year in our sport, teams are just beating up on each other,” Sheffield said, “Our home matches, from a record standpoint, it probably hasn’t been as good as what most of us are wanting, but it’s been entertaining, high-level stuff in the Field House.”
Sheffield wasn’t kidding about the “high-level” competition the Badgers had faced. Their four losses all came to teams currently in the top-11 of the AVCA Coaches’ Poll, including a four-set loss to No. 1 Baylor who has dropped only two sets this entire season.
That high-level competition has continued into conference play, but the Badgers haven’t lost since those Sheffield comments.
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During the current ten-game winning streak, the Badgers have faced five ranked teams and dropped a total of just five sets.
Sheffield said last week that their mindset hasn’t changed throughout the season, following wins or losses.
“It’s back to work. It’s back to finding ways to get better, and we would do that after a loss. We’d do that after a win,” Sheffield said, “I don’t have to worry that they’re going to take things out of perspective. They didn’t when we lost a couple in a row. I certainly don’t expect them to change who they are just because they won a couple in a row.”
While their mindset has remained the same, their gameplay has differed greatly in multiple areas.
First, their defense has rebounded from a rough start.
Between both blocking prowess and backcourt passing, the Badgers have improved significantly. In their first eight games of the season, they allowed a .255 hitting percentage which would put them at 320th in the country out of 332 teams.
Since the start of Big Ten play, Wisconsin has flipped the script allowing a .178 hitting percentage which ranks fifth-best in the conference.
They have also decreased their receiving errors per set from 1.17 during the non-conference slate to 0.57 in Big Ten matchups.
Sheffield praised the efforts of his back row, highlighted by Lauren Barnes, Izzy Ashburn and libero Tiffany Clark, as a noticeable part of his team’s improved play.
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Second, the Badgers are keeping defenses off-balance with a varied attack.
In the beginning of the year, the Badgers leaned heavily on two-time All-American Dana Rettke for offense, especially in their losses. Junior outside hitters Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg struggled in those losses, leaving Rettke with the majority of the load.
As the Big Ten season has progressed, Haggerty and Loberg have both put in quality performances in crucial games.
Against then-No. 5 Penn State, Loberg ripped off a career-high 21 kills on just 35 swings and even added four digs, leading the sweep of the Nittany Lions.
“[Loberg] picked up her blocking as well, but it’s the work and the effort she’s putting in the practice gym that’s really paying off,” Sheffield said. “She’s turning into a big-time outside hitter for us right now.”
Loberg currently holds the highest hitting percentage among outside hitters in the Big Ten within conference play.
Following Loberg’s 21-kill performance, Haggerty, against then-No. 2 Nebraska, led the team with 11 kills at a .391 hitting percentage.
Complementary hitters Madison Duello and Danielle Hart have turned in timely performances as well.
Duello, a Third-Team All-American, has struggled to continue her play from a year ago, but she has found success curling inside against defenses cheating to the outsides.
Hart totaled 10 kills on just 14 swings against Nebraska and blocked 11 balls in the five-set thriller with Illinois.
Lastly, the Badgers have served relentlessly, forcing numerous errors and out-of-system play from opponents. They also defend serves particularly well.
Wisconsin leads the Power Five conferences with 1.79 aces/set. That number includes 1.94 aces/set during their eight-game win streak.
But, aces are not the only result of strong performances behind the service line.
“This is a team that we’re putting pressure on people all six rotations,” Sheffield said. “It’s not just being able to go back and put in some tough serves, but can you do it consistently? So we’re able to do that all six rotations.”
That pressure leads to opponents serving the Badgers free balls which the Badgers often turn into kills.
Sheffield has never had a Badger team serve at this level. No other team under his Wisconsin tenure has averaged more than 1.3 aces per set.
Then again, Sheffield has never had a Badger team enter Big Ten play without a home win or rattle off a 10-0 conference start.
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Sheffield has also had the luxury of Rettke at the net the past two and a half years. But Rettke suffered a foot injury and missed the first game of her career in the Badgers’ win over Northwestern.
There is still no timetable for her return, but walk-on Nicole Shanahan performed adequately in her stead.
“We don’t have anybody on our roster that’s going to replace a First-Team All-American,” Sheffield said, “[Shanahan] comes in, she plays with confidence. She executes what she’s meant to execute.”
With Wisconsin in the midst of a stretch with six out of seven games on the road, the Badgers will need that execution as long as Rettke is sidelined.