Aspirations were high for the Wisconsin volleyball team this year. They returned three All-Americans in Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley and Madison Duello. They added an experienced defensive specialist in Minnesota transfer Lauren Barnes.
Then, they started the year 4-4 against a brutal slate of non-conference teams. Their losses came against Marquette, Baylor and Washington twice — all teams currently ranked in the AVCA top 10.
They used it as a learning experience and rallied to a Big Ten Championship. The Badgers had just one Big championship in the last 17 years after consecutive titles in Ten 2000 and 2001.
After their loss to Penn State Friday night, Wisconsin swept Rutgers and watched as Minnesota topped Penn state 3-1. Penn State’s loss to Minnesota gave the Badgers the top record in the conference.
Since their second loss to No. 10 Washington Sept. 21, the Badgers ripped through Big Ten play with a 18-2 record, including a 12 game winning streak with seven against ranked teams.
They have also played the toughest schedule among the top teams in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has faced Minnesota twice, Nebraska twice and Penn State twice, all three of whom are ranked in the top 10 of the AVCA rankings. None of those teams faced each other more than once.
Their two conference losses came against The Ohio State University Buckeyes, a mid-tier team in the Big Ten, and Penn State in a five-set heartbreaker.
The Badgers responded emphatically following the loss to Ohio State. They dropped only one set in their five wins since the loss, including wins over then-No. 5 Minnesota and then-No. 6 Nebraska.
That streak ended with the Nittany Lions.
The progression of this Badger team is evident from the start of the year. Both as individuals and as a group, UW has improved in all three aspects of the game. According to Head Coach Kelly Sheffield, this team relishes that improvement.
“There’s still a lot of opportunities to grow individually and as a team,” Sheffield said. “Winning is fun, but there’s no better feeling than the feeling of getting better … that’s where the real confidence comes from.”
Their confidence has grown not only from winning but from closing out sets in crucial games. In their loss to Marquette early this season, UW had six match point opportunities and failed to capitalize each time.
In their first loss to Washington, the Badgers dropped a set after leading 24–20 which would have tied the match at 1–1.
The team’s ability to close out crucial sets seemed to change in a pivotal match in Lincoln against Nebraska. In a raucous environment, UW rattled off set-winning runs of 9–4, 11–5 and 6–2 against the top defense in the Big Ten.
Since that night, the Badgers have closed sets furiously with the exception of the loss to the Buckeyes. Also, different Badgers have pioneered game-ending runs.
On the road in the 3–1 win over Minnesota, outside hitter Molly Haggerty closed out the third set with back-to-back kills and finished the match on a personal 3–0 run.
In their second sweep of the Cornhuskers, middle blocker Danielle Hart closed the second set with two kills in the final three points. To close the match, right side hitter Madison Duello provided two kills and an emphatic block on Nebraska’s Lexi Sun.
Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers will likely host two games following their loss to Penn State. A win over the Nittany Lions likely would have given the Badgers a top-four seed and the subsequent opportunity to host four games.
The Badgers will rely on their varied offensive attack as tournament time arrives. Their offense is seventh in the country in hitting percentage and setter Sydney Hilley, a top candidate for Big Ten Setter of the Year, is currently third in the country in assists per game.
Rettke, the two-time AVCA first-team All-American, will likely add another selection as well as a shot for the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Their defense has been steadily improving since the start of the season. At the start of the year, five of the Badgers’ first eight opponents recorded hitting percentages above .200.
Since then, only four of their last 20 opponents have eclipsed .200, and the Badgers won three of those four matches.
Lastly, UW will look to regain their prominence at the service line. In their last eight games, the Badgers’ service errors have outnumbered their service aces.
UW’s service aces either matched or outpaced their service errors in 10 of their first 18 games. Freshman Izzy Ashburn gave the team an unexpected boost at the service line and could be a key contributor in the serving facet of the game.
An NCAA championship is a legitimate goal for this team. All three phases of the game are necessary to accomplish that goal.