The Wisconsin Badgers have yet to lose a match this season — sitting at a perfect 8-0 — and only dropped one set in those matches. It may be a fair question to ask head coach Kelly Sheffield does he feel the need to remind his team that they might lose.
Well, well, well. Look who is back on TV this week.— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) February 18, 2021
(PAY NO ATTENTION TO SUNDAY) pic.twitter.com/TRQOmYh8Gg
Sheffield laughed off that notion, saying he would be a “Debbie Downer” if he emphasized that possibility.
“We’re not trying to hold them back. I think the idea is to get your team as confident as possible and we want them to be as confident as possible,” Sheffield said. “At the end of the day, we want them to turn it loose and to believe that they can go out and put it on people. So to tell them it’s not gonna be this easy or ‘hey, some losses are coming’ is just typically not how we communicate.”
So far, the Badgers have “put in on people.” Although there were some errors that Sheffield didn’t like in their last series against Indiana, the team had their best hitting percentage in the second match at IU with .420 percent, and he liked the way UW responded after those initial errors in the first set.
Now Wisconsin will travel to play a young and improving Michigan State Spartans (2-5 Big Ten, 2-5 overall) side that has given some big teams some fits.
The Spartans have been led mostly by freshmen this year. Sheffield highlighted the play of outside hitter Sarah Franklin — the Spartans’ most used attacker who has 99 kills in her first season — and freshman setter Celia Cullen.
Congrats go out to Sarah Franklin, who picked up her first of what we're sure will be MANY Big Ten weekly honor! Here's to the league's Freshman of the Week! pic.twitter.com/vL63hDDQJG— MSU Volleyball (@MichStVB) February 15, 2021
“Offensively, they can put some pop on the ball,” Sheffield said. “You can tell that this is a team that is going to continue to get better as they get more comfortable. They seem like they’re starting to figure things out every week.”
Of course, UW has plenty of players who can put some pop on the ball. Last weekend, outside hitter Grace Loberg featured heavily in the offense as she has played all six rotations more often this season.
Loberg had a huge night in the second game as she had 14 kills and hit .700 percent, and highlighted that defensive work in the back row by also helping out with five digs.
“I love playing six rotations. I love passing. It’s something that I focus on a lot during practice just because I feel it’s a mental aspect of the game. I think it also adds another dynamic to the team to possibly have the back row option with Molly [Haggerty] back there also,” Loberg said.
Loberg said she worked a lot on the back row game during the fall semester, and she felt that those practices not only helped UW “fine tune their game,” but they also were able to integrate the newer players into the team easier.
Kelly Sheffield said those practices have become a highlight of his day because of how the team is going at it. Sheffield said this is probably the most competitive practice environment he’s seen at UW with the most trash talking in any gym he’s ever been in (according to Sheffield, Grace Loberg has a bit of a potty mouth).
“It’s a lot of fun to get in there and watch them go. I think our team knows it’s a really talented and good team, but it’s our job to continue to find ways to help them grow,” Sheffield said.
Loberg echoed Sheffield’s thoughts on how great the practice gym has been. The senior said it’s been an “awesome environment” and felt it really helped the team get ready for competitive games.
“Every single day we get into [six-versus-six scrimmages] it’s close games, so I feel like that helps us going into the weekends because we’re prepared for close games and know we’re able to make comebacks,” Loberg said.
The competition in the gym makes Sheffield believe there is no worry of any let down. While Wisconsin will begin a really tough run against some of the elite Big Ten competition — the Badgers will play No. 5 Nebraska Cornhuskers next weekend and end the season with three-straight series against ranked teams — the head coach is not worried the team will be overconfident despite their current dominance.
“This group is really driven,” Sheffield said. “They’ve got big goals, they’ve worked their tails off, they want to be really really good, they’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary that great teams do.”
“I think this is a team that wants to hang banners up and they want to be remembered. They want to be legends as far as Wisconsin volleyball goes,” Sheffield said.
Wisconsin plays Michigan State Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CST on Big Ten Network. Their second match is on Sunday, 2:30 p.m. CST on BTN+.