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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers kick off conference play this weekend

Wisconsin’s 6-2 start has been thanks to solid serving and a fierce block. Can they retain the Big Ten title?

UW Athletics Communications

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

That’s a famous quote from Shakespeare or something, but it also relates to the experience so far of Wisconsin volleyball (6-2 overall) this season.

The Badgers are national champions, Big Ten champions, ranked number six in the country, new holders of an attendance record for a regular season women’s volleyball game and a heavy favorite to get back to what would be a fourth straight Final Four despite being a very revamped and refurbished team.

Has all that hype gone to UW’s head, and led to the possibility of a Shakespearean tragic hero’s fall from grace? From what the Badgers are saying, they are lacking the hubris of their crowns, and are focusing on the start of conference play in the toughest conference in the nation.

“I think our team is just ready to work,” senior setter Izzy Ashburn after a sweep of Rhode Island Sunday.

Wisconsin’s season has been filled with big-time tests, with the Badgers facing four ranked teams and posting a 2-2 record.

Those two losses include two five-set losses to Baylor and Florida in the Kohl Center classic that broke attendance records Friday. In those matches, UW struggled with service errors: it hit 20 errors against Baylor and eight against Florida.

But outside of those matches, the Badgers have been a force from the service line, with freshman libero Gülce Güçtekin showing impressive early prowess. Güçtekin, who did not serve while playing internationally in Turkey because liberos can’t serve in the rules over there (let that be the Braelon Allen is only 17 of the volleyball season), has 18 aces on the year. The lefty seems to be able to cause a lot of confusion with her serve and had six aces against the Rhode Island Rams Sunday.

As a team, the Badgers have 1.9 serves per set, good for fourth in the stacked Big Ten and 18th best in the nation.

Fellow newcomer Sarah Franklin also lived up to her hype from Michigan State. The Florida native leads UW with 3.34 kills per set while also pitching in defensively with 46 kills and 15 blocks in eight matches.

A happy return for Wisconsin comes from senior middle blocker Danielle Hart. After missing much of last year because of a knee injury, Hart leads the way on defense with 1.91 blocks per set, which is the second-best rate in the Big Ten and the nation.

As a whole, UW’s front line is a force on the block, with 3.1 blocks per set. Transfer Caroline Crawford is in fifth place on the Big Ten’s blocking stats, while middle blockers Anna Smrek and Devyn Robinson also average over a block per set.

That front will be tested by the surprise of the season: the Northwestern Wildcats. NU is 11-1 with an impressive 3-0 sweep of the No. 24 Pepperdine Waves.

The Wildcats are led by standout outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara. The senior from Glenwood, Ill. leads the team with 3.81 kills per set --- fourth best in the conference --- and will provide a test to the Wisconsin block with her impressive shots up front.

After hosting the Wildcats, UW will head on the road to take on the No. 8 Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-3). Minnesota had a tough non-conference schedule, taking on ranked teams in Baylor, the No. 1 Texas Longhorns, Florida, Oregon, Stanford, and Pepperdine.

Sophomore outside Taylor Landfair, who struggled with injuries last season, leads the way for Minnesota. The 6-foot-5 dynamo Landfair has a wicked arm and posted 4.35 kills per set, second in the league behind Purdue’s freshman phenom Eva Hudson. Coincidentally, Minnesota will take on Purdue before their border battle against Wisconsin.

Landfair will pose a test to UW’s defense, which is still growing into its spots as the Badgers run a different offense from last season and replace libero Lauren Barnes. The two setter, 6-2 offense has worked well for the Badgers so far, allowing its multitude of hitters more time on the floor. So far, Wisconsin has seven players who average at least one kill per set, meaning that opposing teams have to focus on multiple weapons.

Wisconsin’s depth should be able to bring it through a typically tough Big Ten gauntlet. But four-peating as Big Ten champs will be a tricky proposition. Big Ten Network’s Emily Ehman currently thinks the Badgers are the fourth best team in the conference, and most pundits have Nebraska as the favorite.

But so far, Wisconsin still has the crown. And the corresponding target and neck pain that makes the head heavy.

Hopefully, some early wins in Big Ten play can serve as a good chiropractor. They’ll see if a win against Northwestern can help lift their heads high. That match-up comes Friday at 7:00 p.m. at the Field House or on Big Ten Plus.