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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers have weekend series against MSU, Michigan

Bremen Keasey looks back — and ahead — as the Badgers sit in second place in the Big Ten halfway through conference play.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mark Hoffman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Blink and you miss it, but the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers are halfway through Big Ten play, and in a great position to defend their Big Ten title.

Despite a lot of change for the Badgers since their 2021 national title-winning squad, UW (7-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) is humming along in early Big Ten play, with key performances from new players leading the way in the season.

Currently in second place in the Big Ten behind the No. 3 Nebraska Cornhuskers — who are undefeated in conference play at 8-0 — Wisconsin will have two key matchups against the Michigan State Spartans (1-7, 10-9) on Friday in Madison before a trip to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines (4-4, 13-5) Sunday at noon.

What’s been the story of the Badgers season so far? Let me help you take a look.

The curious case of Sarah Franklin

Sophomore outside hitter Sarah Franklin is very good at volleyball. That much is clear.

The Michigan State transfer leads the Badgers with 3.61 kills per set, is a key defensive player on both ends — with 1.75 digs per set and 28 blocks per set — and can put up a wicked service game.

One issue: attacking errors.

The 6-foot-4, All-Big Ten outside hitter leads the Badgers with 78 errors on the year, and is hitting just .237 percent on the attack. In Wisconsin’s 3-1 win over Michigan on Sunday, Franklin had a triple double. Sounds great! Except that she also hit 10 errors to go along with 16 kills and 11 digs.

That’s by no means killing (pun intended) the Badgers’ attack. UW is hitting .261 per set on average and clearly able to pull off clutch wins — including a five-set comeback against Illinois and 3-1 road win over a high-flying Purdue team in early October — but you would guess the Badgers would want those errors cleaned up heading into the final half of Big Ten play.

Yeah, that is tough when the offense often runs through Franklin’s powerful arm. She’s asked to do a lot in all phases of the game. But limiting errors will help UW pull away from teams easier and keep the momentum going in key sets.

“Two QB System” working

The old adage in football is if you have two starting quarterbacks, really, you have none.

Turns out, that logic doesn’t apply for volleyball.

With the departure of the human metronome Sydney Hilley at setter, head coach Kelly Sheffield opted to use a 6-2 system with two setters coming into the rotation in Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill. So far, so good for the Badgers.

Ashburn and Hammill clearly don’t have quite the same chemistry with some of the hitters as the incomparable Hilley did, but the dynamic duo still clearly leads UW well while providing two nasty options from behind the service line.

Hammill has a second-best 22 aces while Ashburn has hit 18 on the year. The pair have been solid on defense as well, and there is no clear change in play on whoever is on the court.

It remains to be seen if Sheffield will keep the system running next year, but both setters have performed well in replacing Hilley.

In the middle of everything

Fifth-year senior Danielle Hart’s return has been a good glue piece for the Badgers, but a newcomer has also become a big piece up front for UW.

Transfer Caroline Crawford has been putting up big numbers for Wisconsin in the last few games, including eight kills and seven blocks against Michigan Sunday, one of the best outings in her Badger career.

Crawford has been a solid pickup from Kansas and has done a bit of everything — even going back to serve on occasion. The Sunflower State native is second on the team behind fellow MB Hart in both blocks per set and hitting percentage.

That duo has been key for UW’s frontline defense that has out-blocked its opponents 178.5 to 112.5 on the year.

Of course, sophomore Anna Smrek and junior Devyn Robinson factor in on the block as well, with both posting over a block per set on the season. Smrek missed a few games with an injury, but had seven kills last time out against the Wolverines.

Looking ahead

Michigan State has only one conference win, but they’ve faced a Big Ten gauntlet so far on the season. The Spartans — under first-year head coach Leah Johnson — faced a stretch of four-straight ranked teams, losing each after their only conference win over Maryland.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s other opponent is Michigan, who the Badgers just beat at the UW Field House 3-1.

That’s not to say the Badgers won’t get tested. As any fan would tell you — (much like the SEC in footbawl, PAUL) — the Big Ten is a hard match every game. But Wisconsin’s schedule kicks up a gear next week, as they’ll play host to No. 3 Nebraska and No. 10 Minnesota at the Field House.

Those two matches will surely play a role in deciding who comes out on top in the Big Ten title race this year — and both matches are already sold out.

Still, Wisconsin won’t want to hit a pothole against the Spartans or Wolverines. They’ll take on Sparty first at 7:00 p.m. CDT Friday in Madison. The match will be streaming on Big Ten plus.