Just as midterm exams are right around the corner for UW students, the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (7-1 Big Ten, 15-1 overall) will have some tough tests on the court at the midway point of the Big Ten season if they want to come out with a championship.
UW starts a run of four matches in a row against top-25 teams in the country, beginning with welcoming the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-2, 16-2) and No. 14 Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2, 13-5) to the UW Field House on back-to-back nights this weekend.
Wisconsin currently sits second in the Big Ten standings behind Nebraska — who are still undefeated in conference play at 8-0.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield said the Badgers know this is where the season really starts, and they’re ready to face that challenge. “We got a tough stretch in front of us but we’re certainly excited to test ourselves,” Sheffield said. “It amps up a little bit for us.”
Wisconsin passed early season tests against defending champions and No. 5 Kentucky and No. 11 Baylor, but this close to the season will have the team cramming to prepare as they’ll play their first road matches against ranked teams next weekend at No. 9 Nebraska and No. 4 Purdue.
Still Wisconsin will feel good about themselves — especially the scrappy performance in the back row so far this season. Despite missing fifth year defensive specialist Gio Civita for a couple of matches with an apparent knee injury, UW has not let their defense suffer in her absence.
Fifth year libero Lauren Barnes has led a platoon that includes juniors Joslyn Boyer, Izzy Ashburn and Anna MacDonald to hold opponents to only .138 hitting percentage — the best in the Big Ten.
Although there are still some shaky moments as the rotation was shaken up and changed, especially when facing Michigan’s tough serving last weekend, Sheffield said they came alive when the Badgers needed to.
“I really like the way our back court dug in when the match was on the line,” Sheffield said. “We were a little bit off for a good portion but when it got right down to it, I thought [Joslyn] Boyer, [Lauren] Barnes and Izzy [Ashburn] really, really defended at a high level and took their game up to a high level when it was on the line.”
Civita’s status may still be in doubt, but Sheffield said he has been impressed by how Izzy Ashburn has filled the role. Though her biggest contribution during her career has come from behind the service line, Sheffield said Ashburn has a lot of “moxie” and believes she can play every position.
“The kid works on her passing, digging. She’s in before practice every day working on her serve. She’s in early setting. She works on her craft in all the possibilities she can impact a match,” Sheffield said. “She gives us an awful lot with just her presence.”
Another wrinkle on the team sheet has been on the right side. Against Michigan, freshman Anna Smrek got some game time on the right side, and really impacted the game defensively. Sheffield noted that when the 6-foot-9 Canadian was over there, the Wolverines totally avoided hitting that direction.
Sheffield said he has confidence in three players — sophomore Jade Demps, freshman Lauren Jardine and Smrek — to play on the right side and really it just depends on what might be going on during the match because of their different skill sets, but he also noted he’s waiting for one of the three to “grab a hold of the position.”
As for the material on the upcoming tests this weekend, Sheffield and Wisconsin have been studying hard on the Buckeyes. Their star name is outside hitter Emily Londot, who announced herself to the Big Ten during the short season last year and is averaging 3.75 kills per set this year.
Although the spotlight is on Londot, the rest of the Buckeyes are also very solid. Middle blocker Rylee Rader is leading the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .490 (just ahead of Dana Rettke) and their setter Mac Podraza is running the offense well enough to be second in the conference behind Sydney Hilley in assists per set.
“You don’t see a lot weaknesses out of them. They’re a very complete team,” Sheffield said about the Buckeyes.
As for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have had some transfers come in for their attack that have made it so their line up especially on the pins. They have the inside figured out though, as middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord — Sheffield called her a “wrecking ball” — and Allie Holland are both in the top-10 in the conference for hitting percentage.
While the Badgers are poring over their flashcards and notes ahead of this weekend, they also know they are a talented team that will be causing the other teams in the Big Ten to spend all-nighters.
Since Devyn Robinson has shifted to play as a middle blocker, she has really found a rhythm on offense. Julia Orzoł’s return has given the Badgers a six-rotation player whose serve gives teams nightmares when it is clicking. Fifth year Grace Loberg has found an extra gear and clutchness in the attack the past few matches as she’s quietly chugged along in UW’s rotation.
Whatever is coming down the pipeline for UW, the team knows the rigors of the Big Ten conference gauntlet. They won back-to-back championships in the toughest conference in volleyball.
And though the team’s talent and success has caused them to be graded on a curve, the team’s only failing grade is a five-set loss to Maryland where the Badgers were plagued with errors.
Either way, the upcoming stretch for Wisconsin will go a huge way in deciding their final grade, which the players want to be a first ever national title.
UW will play No. 6 Ohio State on Friday at 8:00 p.m. CT, then No. 14 Penn State at 6:00 p.m. CT on Saturday. Both games will be aired live on Big Ten Network.