With a different system due to absences, the result for the Wisconsin Badgers (7-0 Big Ten, 16-0 overall) looked the exact same: a sweep 3-0 (25-17, 25-4, 25-16) over a Big Ten foe, this time, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-6, 9-8).
Injuries to senior setter MJ Hammill and senior middle blocker Devyn Robinson — head coach Kelly Sheffield said it was a “rough week” in the practice gym, but gave no timetable for return — meant the Badgers switched back to a 5-1 system. Despite an initial tight opening set, the Badgers had a key 3-0 run to push Wisconsin up 15-12 in the first set for good.
Senior setter Izzy Ashburn said although there were some moments of adjustment tonight, it was much less of a change in the flow of the game than the initial switch to the 6-2.
“Everybody is out there just playing volleyball once the ball is in the air,” Ashburn said.
The change in formation also meant that junior middle blocker Anna Smrek had the chance to serve for the first time. Smrek — who also had 10 kills and 3 blocks — tallied two aces on the night, including one on her first serve of the season.
Although she has not served during a game, Smrek said she practices serving just as much as anyone during the week. Despite hitting three service errors including some bad misses early on, the 6-foot-9 middle blocker was able to shake off any worries.
“In my head, I knew exactly what I needed to do,” Smrek said.
Although it was a new thing for fans to see, head coach Kelly Sheffield has been hoping to “unleash” Smrek’s serving ability, saying that the team has trouble passing against it during the gym. According to the coaching staff’s metrics, Rutgers really struggled to pass while Smrek was serving. Despite the erraticness of her serve, he said her ability to “wipe the slate clean” will make her a good server.
“(In her service game), she had an ace or two and sailed one to Waunakee,” Sheffield said. “Sometimes the next time you get out there, that messes with you. It doesn’t mess with her. She is one of the mentally toughest players I’ve been around.”
Strong serving was the story on the night as the Badgers had five service aces in the first set alone to help win the opener 25-17. But Wisconsin really put their foot on the gas in the second.
UW beat Rutgers 25-4 in the second set, tying the record for the fewest points allowed in one set. The last time Wisconsin allowed that was against Savannah State in 2012.
The Badgers hit .700 in that set while Rutgers was held to -.174 hitting as Wisconsin really cruised. Smrek said she didn’t realize how wide the margin was, but she said UW just kept stacking “good on good” in the second set.
“We played scrappy defense as well,” Smrek said. “We rolled with what was given to us and stuck in the long rallies. That took us through the second.”
Part of the scrappy defense was the play of sophomore defensive specialist Gülce Güçtekin. The Turkey native had a larger role in the 5-1 system, and she had some highlight-reel digs, four assists, and two aces to play her part on the night.
Wisconsin picked up where they left off in the third set, going on an early 4-0 run before it ballooned to a 14-5 lead that forced a Rutgers timeout. In part because of the change in system, Franklin was set in a variety of ways and was a danger from the Badgers’ pin and also got some great backrow kills as well — something that is not featured as much in the 6-2.
Franklin, who led everyone with 16 kills on .324 hitting, said she had more fun hitting from the back row in part because it’s easier to see how the holes open up on the defense. The 6-foot-4 outside hitter also credited the connection with Ashburn — who had 33 assists on the night — for her big night.
“Me and Izzy were connecting really really well,” Franklin said. “It felt great to have more of that.”
Along with the kills, Franklin had a team-high four aces on a night where the Badgers tied a season-high with 11 aces. Along with Smrek and Güçtekin who had two, Ashburn, Joslyn Boyer, and Julia Orzoł found the floor with their serves. Even better: only seven service errors on the night.
Wisconsin’s sweep means the Badgers have still yet to drop a set in conference play. Up next, they’ll face the Maryland Terrapins at the UW Field House on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. That match will be streaming on Big Ten+.