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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers face Kentucky, Marquette in tough non-conference tests

The defending champs come to Madison before UW makes the short trip to Milwaukee for their first road game of the season.

Tom Lynn

After a sweep of the Dayton Flyers last week, where the team focused on getting better as the match goes on, the No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers (4-0 overall) did just that over two matches. It wasn’t always perfect volleyball, but even when missing a key player, the deep Badgers’ attack can find pieces to fill the gaps.

Freshman sensation Julia Orzoł did not play during last week’s games as she might be suffering a minor injury. In her place, senior Grace Loberg had 10 kills and six in the next match, but another face emerged from the pin in sophomore outside hitter Jade Demps.

The Raleigh, N.C. native flashed at times last year, but had a solid series hammering home eight and seven kills over the two matches, respectively. And though the number dipped, both Demps and head coach Kelly Sheffield felt she found her footing in that second match.

While Badger fans surely hope Orzoł returns healthy for this weekend’s tests against the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats (5-1 overall) and in-state rival Marquette Golden Eagles, the emergence of other solid faces across the front row will be welcome for the duration of the long season.

The defending champion Wildcats come to Madison licking their wounds from a 3-0 loss to Creighton last weekend, which included a third set loss despite being up 23-20. Still, this UK team has outstanding sophomore outside hitter Madi Skinner, who is averaging 3.67 kills per set. She and senior outside hitter Alli Stumler, who averaged 3.39 kills per set, lead the attack for the Wildcats.

On the defensive side, it’s sophomore libero Riah Walker who is the difference maker. She averaged over four digs per set to go along with eight aces on the season.

Kentucky may have lost some pieces from its national title team last year — but should still be a tough test for the Badgers, even at home in the Field House.

Wisconsin’s first road match this season won’t take them that far as they travel down I-94 to Milwaukee to take on Marquette. The Golden Eagles (6-0 overall) play Kentucky one day before hosting Wisconsin, which should be quite the warm up.

Marquette has been led by literally do it all fifth year right side/setter Taylor Wolf. Wolf transferred to the Golden Eagles last year from UW-Green Bay, and has been filling up the stat sheet since then.

Wolf is tied for the lead in assists with 114, second on the team in kills per set with 2.91, leads the team in aces with nine and is tied for the lead in digs with 59 — good for 2.68 a set. That versatility is remarkable, and it’s no wonder she was a preseason member of the All-Big East First Team squad.

Another player who transferred to Marquette last season and is now putting up big numbers is Savannah Rennie. Rennie — a transfer from Cal who was with the program there for five years (NCAA math is getting weird here, bear with me) — leads the team in kills and was also a preseason All-Big East First Team member.

Rennie’s rise is all the more remarkable, because she sat out her first season with Cal in 2015 with congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension and received a liver transplant in May of 2016 to cure the disease. Just three months after that, she was playing volleyball again and made her college debut in October of that year.

Then, Rennie sat out the 2017 season to receive treatment for non-Hodgkin post-transplant lymphoma. She got better and played the next season and in 2019, but she played that season on a torn ACL. Rennie’s incredible life story aside, the Golden Eagles are a solid volleyball team who will give Wisconsin a good test on the road.

With unknowns on whether about Orzoł will play, the biggest factor for this series in Wisconsin is the play from the pins. Danielle Hart and Dana Rettke have been off to great starts this year from the middle block, and freshman Anna Smrek has shown she can add some value off the bench. But if Orzoł is not in, can Demps and Loberg continue their good starts?

Another question with Orzoł’s absence is what happens to the rotation and subs. The back row sometimes was a little more out of sync against Dayton than the prior games against Baylor and TCU, and Danielle Hart found herself on the backline for the first time in a while.

Either way, this weekend represents two good tests for the Badgers in non-conference play. Wisconsin plays Kentucky in a “Redout” at the UW Field House at 8:00 p.m. CT on Friday on the Big Ten Network, then heads on the road to Milwaukee to face Marquette at 4:30 p.m. CT on Sunday on FS1.