It was set to be an epic clash between the two top teams in the Big Ten.
It ended up being a clean sweep and a coming out party for one of Wisconsin’s talented freshmen.
The No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (10-1 Big Ten, 17-1 overall) swept the No. 6 Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-1, 16-4) in Lincoln, Neb. (26-24, 25-19, 25-23) which gives the Badgers a head start in the Big Ten title race and a new threat emerging in freshman Anna Smrek.
Smrek finished with a career high 12 kills while hitting .647
percent and adding four blocks in a breakout role in arguably the most anticipated game of the volleyball season.
“I just wanna ball out with my bros,” Smrek said with a beaming smile during the post match interview.
Kelly Sheffield had said that he was waiting for one player to really claim the right side as their own, and the 6-foot-9 Canadian certainly stood out tonight. The freshman hit all kinds of different shots as she led the match in kills.
The match started well for Wisconsin as the Badgers rushed out to an 8-4 lead, with fifth year outside hitter Grace Loberg scoring two early kills before finishing with eight. The Huskers went on some good service runs thanks to Kenzie Knuckles — who really sparked Nebraska in a couple sets — to bring the score back to 15-15.
Another key part for the UW sweep was the defensive play by Wisconsin — highlighted again by the effort of fifth year libero Lauren Barnes. During a crucial point in the first set, Barnes by my count had four digs — she finished with 20 to lead all players — before Smrek finished it off with a kill. Fifth year setter Sydney Hilley and junior Joslyn Boyer also cracked double digits with digs, with Hilley tallying 16 while the Iowa transfer had 11. Fifth year Gio Civita had eight, but still looked solid out there despite playing without an ACL.
Although Wisconsin still has a habit of letting teams back into sets, they shut the door on Nebraska thanks to a kill from Grace Loberg to win the first set 26-24 and silencing the record crowd of 8,274 on hand in Lincoln.
The Huskers kept the second set against Wisconsin a little bit tighter before UW took an 18-13 lead. Nebraska called timeout then went on a 3-0 run to put some scare in the Badgers, but Anna Smrek became a huge force late in the set, and put home the set point dagger at 25-19.
After the Huskers had a slow start in the third set thanks to a few real bad service errors — Nebraska finished with seven on the match — they got a run thanks to Knuckles’ strong serving to take a 7-11 lead over Wisconsin.
The Badgers kept in the set. After a timeout, Smrek had a kill to stop Knuckles’ run and freshman Julia Orzoł pumped in some timely kills to chip away at the deficiet. A kill from Dana Rettke gave UW the lead again at 19-18 before a towering Orzoł kill made it 20-18 and the Huskers called timeout.
Rettke had 11 kills while Orzoł was held to just seven while hitting just .103, but those kills came at the right times. Rettke had three of her kills in the closing moments of the third set to put the pressure on Nebraska. Then the match was sealed by an error from Husker star Lauren Stivrins that sailed straight into the net for a 25-23 set three win, and sweep for Wisconsin.
Stivrins and Nebraka’s attack were held in check for most of the match. No Husker got above double digit kills — Madi Kubik, Stivrins and Lindsay Krause finished with nine each — and the team hit just .148 from the field. That again was a testament to the defensive work of the Badgers, who got really good touches on the block and had Lauren Barnes back defending like a heat-seeking missile.
Wisconsin has owned Nebraska. In the last four matches, the Badgers have won all 12 sets including winning all six sets in Lincoln. And the win puts Wisconsin on top of the conference standings.
The Badgers will next head to West Lafayette to take on the No. 7 Purdue Boilermakers (7-4, 15-5) in another Top 10 conference clash. That will be Sunday on Halloween at 11:00 a.m. CT on ESPNU.