The Wisconsin Badgers find themselves in an unfamiliar position this weekend: underdogs.
After a disappointing five-set loss against a suddenly-hot Purdue Boilermakers team last Friday night, the Badgers (16-3 Big Ten, 25-3 overall) dropped out of the top four in the rankings to No. 5.
A Sunday afternoon win against the Indiana Hoosiers (9-10, 19-13) ended a two-match losing streak, but the Badgers are out of the running in the Big Ten title race.
That honor goes to the undefeated, No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers (18-0, 27-0), who stopped the Badgers’ four-year Big Ten title streak to win their first conference title since 2017.
With the title now added to the trophy case and media guides, the Badgers have a chance to get back on the right foot ahead of postseason play and get revenge on the Huskers in a blockbuster clash at the UW Field House Friday afternoon.
Wisconsin’s last match against Nebraska in Lincoln was a five-set thriller and an epic 1-vs-2 battle that lived up to all the hype as the Huskers won in five. This time, UW will be looking to knock its rivals off and build some positive momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament — and get a chance to get back into the Top 4.
Although head coach Kelly Sheffield acknowledged the importance of the rivalry involved heading into the match, the biggest focus is heading into postseason play with momentum because of the multiple line-up changes and rotation changes this season.
“(Our mindset has been more) about playing our best volleyball here at the end,” Sheffield said.
A key for Wisconsin will be stopping the Huskers’ outside hitters: Merritt Beason and Harper Murray. Those two are in the top 10 in the conference in kills per set and came up big for Nebraska’s win in Lincoln. Beason led all players with 21 kills on the night and was firing them home from all over the court. Although Murray struggled in parts during the match, the freshman phenom had seven kills and no errors in the clinching fifth set.
UW will hope its middle blockers can get going in this match. Having Smrek back in the lineup will be big to help the Badgers swing better than .217 — UW’s hitting percentage last match against Nebraska. Smrek is third in the Big Ten in hitting percentage, hitting .404 on the season while sophomore Carter Booth has been even better. Booth leads the conference with .445 hitting on the season and also leads in blocks per set with 1.57.
Smrek was out for the last three matches due to an “upper body injury.” Sheffield said she first practiced last Saturday and felt good enough to go ahead of the Sunday match against Indiana. The 6-foot-9 middle blocker had 10 kills in her first action since her injury, and Sheffield felt that was a needed boost for the team.
“I thought it was a good match for her. We’re a lot better with Anna Smrek in,” Sheffield said.
The other thing Wisconsin will need to improve in the seismic battle will be the serving game. In Lincoln, UW’s hot serving went cold. The Badgers had 12 service errors and no aces. The poor serving allowed Nebraska to stay in system, and the errors made it hard for UW to keep momentum. Although the Huskers also had lots of serving errors — both teams struggling perhaps indicated the nerves for the match — Nebraska managed to get some key aces that helped make the difference.
Badger fans will be hoping the team’s performance can be helped by the home atmosphere of the Field House. Sheffield said he knows the crowd, one that he feels is one of the best in college sports, will be ready and hopes they will be “rowdy.”
Either way, all eyes will be on the Field House Friday afternoon. The match will be airing on Big Ten Network at 3:00 p.m. Central. After that, UW will close out the season Saturday night against bottom of the conference Iowa Hawkeyes (0-18, 8-22).