The No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers head into Big Ten play unbeaten at 8-0 after a tough non-conference schedule that featured top-10 tests and other tune-ups that allowed head coach Kelly Sheffield to use different rotations.
Now as Wisconsin heads east to face the Maryland Terrapins (12-0 overall) and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-3), they’ll play their first conference matches as they hope to win their third straight Big Ten championship.
Sheffield said during a press conference Monday that he is very happy with the team’s depth, and he feels confident with whatever combination they have out on the floor after seeing the players in non-conference play.
“To me, that’s a good part of what non-conference [play] allows you to do,” Sheffield said. “[You can] test yourself against good teams, but also put people in different scenarios and see how they are in matches,” Sheffield said.
Sheffield specifically highlighted how he is confident in four outside hitters in Grace Loberg, Jade Demps, Julia Orzoł and Lauren Jardine, saying they’ve all had good moments.
Orzoł of course returned from an injury last weekend and showcased a bit of everything on the floor on her way to winning Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Sheffield said she adds a lot to the team, and is likely to be ready for Big Ten battles.
“More than just her skill, the kid loves to battle. She loves to be in big moments and doesn’t shrink,” Sheffield said.
A lineup change that was unfortunately forced has still worked out well for UW. With senior Danielle Hart’s knee injury taking her out for the season, freshman middle blocker Anna Smrek stepped up in her absence, hitting at a very high percentage in her first two games in the rotation. She and Dana Rettke form a big block — Smrek stands at 6-foot-9, somehow taller than Rettke at 6-foot-8 — and Sheffield is high on Smrek going forward.
Another point Sheffield addressed was the libero spot. Lauren Barnes has mostly starred at the point wearing the opposite color jersey, but fifth year Giorgia Civita had that honor for a game during the weekend.
“With Gio or Lauren [as libero] we’re in good shape,” Sheffield said.
As the Badgers look to stay unbeaten, their first game will be against a surprise unbeaten in Maryland. The Terps are 12-0 after being picked to finish last by the Big Ten coaches before the season. They’ve had a solid defense thanks to freshman sensation Milan Gomillion. The libero has 5.2 digs per set to lead the Big Ten in that category. The Terps’ attack has been led by sophomore Sam Csire and fifth year Paula Neciporuka, both averaging over three kills per set from the outside.
Rutgers has a roster littered with international talent, but have been led by a middle blocker from the far away land of Georgia, United States. Fifth year Shealyn McNamara — from Marietta, which some will say is “just” outside Atlanta but it is not that close to Atlanta — is No. 9 in the conference in blocks and No. 10 in hitting percentage. Fifth year Serbian right side Beka Kojadinovic leads the Scarlet Knights with over three kills per set while sophomore libero Madyson Chitty has had over four digs per game.
Both teams should give UW a first taste of Big Ten competition as the two east coast teams bring in hot starts into conference play.
Wisconsin plays Maryland first on Friday night at 6:00 p.m. CT, then plays Rutgers Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m CT. with both games streaming on Big Ten Plus.