In their ninth-straight Sweet Sixteen appearance, the No. 4 seeded Wiscosnin Badgers (17-3 Big Ten, 27-3 overall) will get the luxury of home cooking for the fourth time under head coach Kelly Sheffield.
Four of the best teams in all the land travel to Madison for this regional, with the No. 13 seed UCLA Bruins (16-4 Pac-12, 25-5 overall) advancing after a couple tough wins over Fairfield and UCF. While the Badgers had two clean sweeps over Colgate and FGCU, UCLA was pushed to extra points twice in their opening round match up against Fairfield, but pulled off the sweep (29-27, 25-23, 26-24). Their second round match against the Golden Knights took all five sets before the Bruins pulled off the 3-2 win (25-27, 25-13, 19-25, 25-22, 15-7).
The key for UCLA in the match against UCF — and throughout the whole season — was outside hitter Mac May. The fifth year senior from Dubuque, Iowa had 25 kills and three aces in the win over the Golden Knights. May is lethal on the attack, averaging .483 kills per set and adding 44 aces during the regular season.
The other key outside swinger for the Bruins is freshman Charitie Luper. Luper averages 3.47 kills per set, but missed all of November for the Bruins with an undisclosed injury. She was able to come back and play against UCF, but only had one kill.
The key for UCLA has been a collective effort in the back row. Six Bruins average over two digs per set, with libero Zoe Fleck averaging the most with 4.00 per set. Fleck had 29 in their win against UCF while Élan McCall had a double double with 17 kills and 20 digs. Setter Shelby Martin also posted 13 digs while Mac May wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty on defense either with eight digs.
May is likely to have a big cheering session in Madison, considering she said one of her proudest moments in sports was when her family cheered her on in Madison during the NCAA Tournament in 2019.
UW won that second round matchup in straight sets, with Dana Rettke and Grace Loberg recording 10 and nine kills, respectively. Obviously, both are back for their fifth year for the Badgers, with hopes of winning the program’s first NCAA Championship.
Loberg was one part of the dynamic duo of the pins that dominated the match against FGCU for Wisconsin, and the “Thunder” — with freshman Julia Orzoł bringing the “Lightning” — led the team with 15 kills as part of a string of strong performances towards the end of the year.
Before the season, Loberg said she wanted to find a “clutch factor” missing after Molly Haggerty’s departure. Despite some up and down moments, the fifth year senior is finding form, posting double digit kills in five of her last six games.
While Loberg and Orzoł dominated the second round matchup, it was the middle blockers doing the work on offense in game one. Against Colgate, Dana Rettke had 15 kills to lead everyone as the Badgers hit .398 in the game.
Sophomore Devyn Robinson and freshman Anna Smrek — who has found her place as an opposite side attacker as the season has worn on — added efficient performances which will make opposing head coaches sweat: what do you do if you stop one part of the Badgers’ attack?
Another boost for Wisconsin: the other two teams in the regional — No. 5 Baylor and No. 12 Minnesota — have both already played at the Field House this season, and both suffered losses. Baylor lost 3-1 in August while Minnesota lost twice to the Badgers, including a 3-0 sweep in Madison and a thrilling 3-2 win for UW in Minneapolis.
Those two potential Elite Eight opponents feature true star outside hitters. Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley and Minnesota’s Stepahnie Samedy are worth the price of admission by themselves and can truly take over matches.
One match at a time. Don't worry. We know.— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 8, 2021
If we don't post this though, you'll keep asking. pic.twitter.com/R8bU9djhaU
Though UW’s deep offense and home court could give them the edge to advance to their third-straight Final Four, the Badgers made it clear they are trying to stay in the moment.
“We’re just trying to stay in the present,” Loberg said.
And their present fight will be against the No. 13 UCLA Bruins. First serve will be at 4:00 p.m. CT from the Wisconsin Field House and aired live on ESPNU.