MADISON — After dropping a rocky first set against the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-3 Big Ten, 11-6 overall), the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers (5-1 Big Ten, 13-1 overall) bounced back to win the match 3-1 (25-27, 25-20, 25-9, 25-15) and played some of the best volleyball of the year, by any team, in the final two sets.
The first set — similar to their last match against Illinois earlier in the month — was tough going for Wisconsin. Despite some good early serving including three aces, Illini got their block going and had five blocks to put pressure on UW. The Badgers had nine attacking errors and three serving errors as UI took the first set 25-27.
The second set saw Wisconsin get off to a good start, and saw their own block finally get going. The Badgers were off to an early 9-3 lead and were hitting .429. Fifth year senior Dana Rettke, who had two blocks in the set, felt that was a key to getting the team back on track.
“Our block really picked it up towards the middle of the match,” Rettke said. “Our wing blockers were really disciplined and not letting a lot of points score. That was part of our success there towards the end of the match.
The team ended up finishing with 10 total blocks, with six Badgers tallying a stuff. Rettke led Wisconsin in that category with eight while also leading the way with 15 kills.
Illinois clawed back in the second set to get the score to 13-12. UW stretched the lead a bit before the Illini pushed back to put the score at 21-20, before a kill from fifth year Grace Loberg sparked a 4-0 run that put the Badgers over the line to level what was looking like a tough match.
“We just grinded,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said.
But in the third set, the game opened up for Wisconsin. Good serving from freshman Julia Orzoł helped the Badgers find their top gear, and the third set ended up a 25-9 massacre for Wisconsin as the Illini hit in the negatives while UW hit .458.
Loberg was a big factor in the third set, notching five kills and no errors. Loberg had some up and down matches early on in the season, but has started to find her place this season. The outside hitter finished with 13 kills on .250 hitting percentage and has started to find the killer instinct she talked about before the season.
“I’ve been trying to work on adding in different shots while attacking,” Loberg said. “I like to go cross-court, I like to hit the ball hard, but that’s not always going to work. So that’s one thing I’ve been focusing on in practice and I’m just going to continue working on that.”
The Geneva, Ill. native also notched career kill No. 1,000 for the Badgers — becoming the 25th player in program history to do that, though she laughed as she said the fifth year “kind of helped.”
While she is proud of her accomplishment, she also chalked it up to her teammates.
“None of that would be possible without our amazing back row, our passers, our defenders. Sydney Hilley, she puts up butter for me every time,” Loberg said.
As Loberg and Wisconsin found their groove on offense that third set, the whole team defense stepped up as well. The Badgers held a dangerous Illini offense to just .056 hitting, and the Illini failed to hit in the positive percentages in the last two sets.
Rettke said that stopping those hitters on the block — even just getting touches on the ball to stop the momentum and give the back row more to work with — made the difference in the turnaround.
“It really stemmed from our block. It made us able to play really good team defense, allowed the back row to set up really well around us,” Rettke said. “They worked hard in transition, creating openings for all our attackers, and just being really smart. That’s where it started so big credit to our defense tonight.”
Rettke also praised the serving game tonight. Wisconsin finished with nine aces, but even the serves that weren’t aces troubled the Illini and allowed for easy kills off overpasses. Orzoł and junior defensive specialist Anna MacDonald in particular led big service runs for the Badgers at different times in the later sets.
Orzoł’s serve can be feast or famine, but the Polish freshman really kicked it up in the third and fourth sets. Though she struggled at times on offense — she had more errors than kills — she didn’t let her head drop in the service game and put in great effort on defense, tallying 12 digs and at one point coming up with blood in her mouth from diving on the floor.
In the next portion of their schedule, Wisconsin will face two road matches against Michigan State and Michigan before coming back to the Field House to take on two ranked opponents in Ohio State and Penn State.
But Saturday night’s match proved that the Badgers will be able to grind out tough sets and find what works. And once they start to click, the team can play volleyball that is nearly unstoppable.