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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers still dominant, still hungry after extended layoff

The undefeated Badgers will not play this weekend due to COVID concerns in the Penn State program.

UW Athletics Communications

In last Sunday’s 3-1 victory over No. 4 Minnesota (11-2 Big Ten, 11-2 overall) — Wisconsin’s first game since February 21 — the still undefeated Badgers (11-0, 11-0) looked like they barely skipped a beat despite the lengthy lay off.

With another big series coming up this weekend against the No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions, head coach Kelly Sheffield said despite the good performance, there are still things to iron out.

“In some areas I thought we played a little bit better than what I was anticipating [after the layoff], but there were some other areas of rust that weren’t a surprise,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield noted that in serve receive — basically, getting the ball to the setter after the initial serve to stay “in system” and get momentum to your offense — there were some aces that UW allowed but otherwise they passed smartly and the team, especially senior libero Lauren Barnes, played really well.

Barnes, who finished with 20 digs against the Gophers, echoed the fact the layoff made getting back to form in serve receive harder.

“We have a lot of good servers in the Big Ten and it’s hard to replicate what you’re going to see on the court. We see our servers in the gym, but we don’t see our opponents except on film,” Barnes said.

Still, she added UW did pass well — save for the few aces allowed — and improved during the game.

“I thought we came back with a perfect pass almost every single time after and really fought off some tough serves which was really good,” Barnes said.

Another difference for Wisconsin against the Gophers was the absence of senior setter Sydney Hilley. Hilley was still in COVID-19 protocols — meaning she missed her first match of her career — and freshman MJ Hammill was forced to step up.

Sheffield knew that Hammill would be ready as a next man up, but he was impressed by her performance and full of praise for the freshman in her first start.

“There’s a toughness about her. She’s a competitor and wants to be out there on the floor, so you knew that she’d be ready and she was,” Sheffield said. “It was a great first match against a pretty tough opponent.”

Hammill finished with a stat-sheet stuffing 46 assists, nine digs and two blocks. Sheffield said she managed the offense well and didn’t try to do too much.

Despite her first ever start, Hammill said the nerves were “surprisingly low” considering how well the team prepares in the gym and how Hilley helped prepare her.

“Sydney [Hilley] has done a really amazing job of taking me under her wing and showing me what it means to be an incredible leader and work hard every day,” Hammill said.

“I think the way we train is just preparing for situations like this so when the time comes, there’s no nerves, there’s just excitement.”

The players said that during the almost month-long break, they tried to stay as ready as they can with wall work with the volleyball — Hammill said “you’d be amazed at what you can do with a wall” — and try and stay sane by trying to get outside (Badger volleyball players, they’re just like us!).

But Wisconsin is ready to continue to play and compete the rest of the way in the Big Ten as they face big tests to the end of the season.

Penn State (9-5 Big Ten, 9-5 overall) is a consistent volleyball powerhouse and has a tough defense for the Badgers to break down, averaging 2.3 blocks per set. Middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord has a .404 hitting percentage and ranks sixth in the conference with 1.34 blocks per set.

After this break, the big question is can the Badgers shake off all the rust and get ready to make an NCAA Tournament run?

“Yes we do,” Barnes said. “No one comes in feeling content with where we’re at and especially after this break, we all come in hungry to learn more and improve. We have enough time [to get ready].”

[UPDATE, Friday morning 3/26/21]

Per UW: This weekend’s Wisconsin at Penn State volleyball series has been canceled. The decision to cancel was mutually agreed upon by the two schools out of an abundance of caution surrounding the health and safety of the participants. The events have been canceled due to health and safety concerns related to COVID-19 on the Penn State squad.

The Badgers are scheduled to wrap up the regular season on April 1-2 when Michigan comes to the UW Field House for two matches.