Turns out for Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, the kids are alright.
In the Badgers (8-0 overall) first two matches before conference play, it was the freshman class who led the way in two 3-0 sweeps over UW-Green Bay (5-7) and Northern Illinois (6-4) this past weekend.
Julia Orzoł came back from injury and picked up right where she left off to lead Wisconsin in kills with 14 in their first bout against Green Bay. The native of Poland followed that up with eight kills against Northern Illinois and a career high three aces.
Freshman Anna Smrek also saw significant action for the Badgers as she is taking the spot of the injured Danielle Hart. The 6-foot-9 Canadian middle blocker made an instant impact, getting six kills in the first game and a perfect hitting percentage. She followed up that performance with eight kills against NIU and “only” a .638 hitting percentage.
Smrek admitted postgame she was “jittery” knowing she’ll see significant time, but she said that Hart has really helped give her a boost as a freshman.
“[Danielle] has been texting me and talking to me before the game. She’s very supportive and she’s definitely playing with me out there when I think about it,” Smrek said. “I’m really lucky to have Dan as a teammate.”
Against the Huskies too, Wisconsin got another strong contribution from the third member of their freshman class in Lauren Jardine. The outside hitter from Utah had up-and-down action in a couple cameos against Kentucky and Marquette — showing off a wicked shot but also an inconsistency you’d expect with a freshman.
But against NIU, Jardine led the way for UW with a team-leading 14 kills while hitting .667 with only one error. Head coach Kelly Sheffield was happy with the way she has been improving and hoped this kind of breakout performance helps her in the long run.
“Considering she was hitting .070 going into the match and almost .600 coming out, it would be a confidence booster for anyone,” Sheffield said. “She’s got an unbelievable amount of potential, she’s learning, and this was a good match for her.”
During the weekend, the Badgers continued to show off impressive serving play. UW had four aces against Green Bay and six against NIU, with six players — Orzoł, Giorgia Civita, Josyln Boyer, Izzy Ashburn, Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes — getting an ace.
So Wisconsin stayed undefeated after their last tune up series before conference play opens up this weekend. And although the shine is on the young stars stepping up, it’s not as if rest of the Badgers’ veteran cast is going away.
Four-time All-American Dana Rettke had double digits kills in both matches. Outside hitter Grace Loberg had six kills and two blocks against Green Bay. Libero Lauren Barnes had 16 digs against the Phoenix while Gio Civita had 10 against the Huskies.
But the freshmen are pushing for serious playing time — and showing serious talent — as the Badgers stayed perfect on the season. But of course head coach Kelly Sheffield still thinks there is stuff to work on.
“We are a work in progress, like anyone else,” Sheffield said. “We’ve had some really good moments and things we certainly have to get better at, which is fun! It’s a fun place to be. You want to be a team that has potential to keep getting better.”
Do you hear that?— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) September 19, 2021
It's the sound of the Big Ten season starting next week. pic.twitter.com/8HqdySQ8Eh
The potential is clear with Wisconsin’s young guns, and the rest of the core is still firing on all cylinders. Up comes the real season in the gauntlet of the Big Ten conference. Can the Badgers continue to put it all together?