The cliche in any sport is offense gets the glory but defense wins championships.
For the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (5-1 Big Ten, 13-1 overall) this season, and through many others, that is no exception. Getting to watch fifth year Dana Rettke and sophomore Devyn Robinson thunder home kills down the middle is a joy to watch. Same is true for the outside snipes from fifth year Grace Loberg and freshman Julia Orzoł.
But the focus for head coach Kelly Sheffield ahead of a weekend series in Michigan — where the Badgers take on the Spartans (1-5, 8-7) and Wolverines (3-3, 10-5) — is the defensive side, especially on the block.
Sheffield believes that the loss of senior middle blocker Danielle Hart really affected that part of the defense for UW. Sheffield said Hart was a vocal leader in a spot where communication is key for getting players in the right position. It also caused the lineup to reshuffle, with Robinson taking on responsibility in the middle, meaning re-learning the right footwork there rather than her usual right sided role.
Still, Sheffield noted the team has seen a difference after a blocking performance that was just “short of a train wreck” in their previous game against Illinois.
“It’s kind of a work in progress, but I like the direction we’re going,” Sheffield said. “But against Illinois, we got better as it went along certainly...Even though we got no blocks in the first set I thought we were setting up a lot better [than previous matches].”
Another absence that has affected the UW defense has been fifth year Gio Civita. The Italian has been out dealing with an injured knee, which has elevated junior Anna MacDonald into a lot of playing time.
The junior from Alpharetta, Ga. has done well in the action she’s seen on the court, doing really good work from the service line. MacDonald’s sister, Amber, played at Wisconsin for three years from 2015-2017 and said they show a similar feistiness and competitiveness, and gave UW a lot over the weekend.
“She hasn’t missed a serve yet this season, putting the ball in good areas. She made some really nice digs to extend her serving run against Illinois. We’ve got a lot of confidence in her ability to defend and set out-of-system balls,” Sheffield said.
Sheffield didn’t talk about the status of Civita, but the defensive specialist was wearing a brace on her same knee that she had previously torn ACL three times during the week. I am no medical expert, but that’s not a good sign. Still, the team hasn’t announced whether she would be out for the season yet, which means she could come back later in the season.
As for this weekend, Michigan State outside hitter Sarah Franklin will provide a test to UW’s defense. Sheffield called the sophomore from Florida one of the conference’s best young outsides, and she leads the Spartans by totaling nearly four kills per set. Another weapon for MSU is junior outside hitter Cecilee Max-Brown, who has 2.86 kills per set and 11 aces on the season.
Just a little cross-court dagger from Cecilee Max-Brown. pic.twitter.com/TtaO6zYkFK— Michigan State Volleyball (@MichStVB) August 28, 2021
The Michigan Wolverines are likely to be a tougher test for the Badgers. The Wolverines are coming off a weekend where they beat Minnesota in five sets after they forced the Gophers to a five-set thriller at home earlier in the season.
The Wolverines have one of the best servers in the Big Ten in May Petrofsky, who has averaged 0.5 aces per set to go along with 2.52 kills per set and 0.89 blocks per set. Libero Hannah Grant meanwhile has nearly four digs per set in the back row for Michigan.
This swing to the Mitten State next door will be a good warm up before two big tests at home against No. 8 Ohio State and No. 14 Penn State next weekend.
The Badgers will battle the Spartans Friday at 5:00 p.m. CT while their game against the Wolverines will be Saturday at 3:30 p.m. CT, with coverage of both contests on the Big Ten Network.