Almost a month ago, the Wisconsin Badgers were staring down a sweep to the Florida Gators as they were down 2-0 on the road before conference play started.
Since that stunning reverse sweep on Sept. 17, the Badgers (9-0 Big Ten, 18-0 overall) have been perfect, winning 30 straight sets including nine straight wins to start off conference play — this time 3-0 (25-22, 25-15, 25-18) against the Ohio State Buckeyes (4-5, 7-11) — setting up a huge weekend clash against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
In front of a rowdy, white-out crowd at the Wisconsin Field House, the Badgers overcame a slight struggle at the outset to rout the Buckeyes. Junior outside hitter Sarah Franklin led the way with 16 kills, but it wasn’t always easy going for UW.
In the opening set, a couple of fast attacking errors helped give the Buckeyes a 6-1 lead. Head coach Kelly Sheffield called timeout looking for a reset, but senior setter Izzy Ashburn said it was the players that mostly took the way to regroup.
“We’re a team that bounces back really well, and there is no panic within that,” Ashburn said.
Franklin got started, getting three early kills to help claw back the lead before junior Anna Smrek had a service ace to knot the set up 7-7. Although the set then went back-and-forth, strong service from Gülce Güçtekin including one ace helped the Badgers get a 16-12 and force a Buckeye timeout. Although the Buckeyes fought off two set points, the Badgers closed out the opener 25-22.
In the second set, Ashburn’s serve caught fire. The fifth-year senior rattled off an 8-0 run that included three aces in the sequence and forced two OSU timeouts to hold an 18-8 lead in the second set.
Although Ashburn’s play stood out, the team had 11 aces again to tie a team-high on the season. Sheffield felt that production was the “biggest thing in the match.”
“(The team) really putting a lot of pressure on them because of where (on the court) we were serving,” Sheffield.
As part of that impressive play, the Buckeyes were often out of system, and the Badgers frequently targeted OSU’s star outside hitter Emily Londot. Although the Ohioan had nine kills on the night, that was well below her per-set average of over five and was held to just .167 hitting.
Part of that lack of production came from Wisconsin’s service pressure. With the mix of balls being served directly to her, which limited her ability to get out of the defensive stance to get a swing, or the fact the Buckeyes struggled in sere-receive, which created limited options for a decent set and a lot of out-of-system balls, the All-Big Ten swinger had a rougher night against Wisconsin.
“Anytime she is hitting in the hundreds, that’s a small victory to us,” Sheffield said.
UW also cracked down on its untimely errors from the first set. Graduate senior Temi Thomas-Ailara was hitting in the negatives after one set, but she came alive in the second set with five kills on six swings to help the Badgers close out the Buckeyes 25-15.
In the third set, sophomore Carter Booth created some instant offense for Wisconsin with two back-to-back early kills. The 6-foot-7 middle blocker has mostly earned playing time with her blocks, but she had seven kills — including four in the clinching set — on .778 hitting.
Booth said she is growing more in her offensive game by getting better in transition from defense. As part of that, she said she has emphasized “driving off the net” so she can be in position and give more options for the offense and potentially make gaps for other hitters.
“It’s not just how hard I hit the ball, it’s how hard. I’m working to get off the net and be available for Izzy (Ashburn),” Booth said.
The Badgers’ win over the Buckeyes — completing the season sweep after a Sept. 27 win in Columbus — sets up a monster clash against the fellow unbeaten Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-0, 18-0).
Despite the anticipation for the matchup by volleyball fans, Ashburn said the team is used to not looking ahead and just focusing on what is in front of them.
Still, Sheffield and the Badgers will now be looking forward to the contest against the Huskers. Wisconsin won both its matches against Nebraska last season, and has a streak of nine wins in a row against the Huskers. But, Sheffield noted so far this season, Nebraska has shown a lot of attacking balance and has had a better-hitting percentage this year while maintaining the same great defensive play it's so known for.
Although Devyn Robinson and MJ Hammill were back on the sidelines in uniform for the Badgers Wednesday night, it’s unclear how ready they will be on the road in the highly anticipated matchup in Lincoln.
But, Carter Booth said the Badgers know they’re always in any match no matter the opponent or circumstances.
“I think as a team, belief is our superpower,” Booth said. “We know what we need to do, and we’re going to do it.
The heavyweight clash on Saturday will be live on Big Ten Network at 7 p.m. Central.