The Badgers started the season with something new this year.
Instead of a usual intrasquad scrimmage to end the volleyball team’s pre-season prep, Wisconsin tuned up for its first regular season contest with a scrimmage against the UIC Flames Sunday.
UW swept the Flames (25-13, 25-12, 25-18) and won an extra fourth set 25-19. While the match was against not the strongest opponent, UW’s dominant play proved the Badgers will be a threat to defend their Big Ten crown and would hope to reach a spot in the Final Four this year in Tampa.
In the scrimmage, outside hitter Sarah Franklin led the way for UW with 15 kills in the first three sets with no errors. Franklin, who was given the all-clear to play by doctors earlier this month after she was briefly sidelined with a medical issue, ranked seventh in the conference in kills per set last year and received All-Big Ten preseason honors.
The sophomore Lake Worth, Florida said it felt great to be back in competitive action and competing with the rest of the squad.
“I was ready to get back with these girls because there was no place that I’d rather be than on the court with these players,” Franklin said.
Franklin at times struggled with consistency last year, but she formed a lethal force from the outside along with junior Julia Orzoł. But with graduate transfer and preseason All-Big Ten honoree Temi Thomas-Ailara also lining up at outside hitter for UW, Orzoł saw time at a different position during the UIC match.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield is never afraid to mix things up, and he had Orzoł play a set as the libero during the first set. Orzoł played all six rotations during her career for the Badgers, and showcased her versatility by also notching six kills in the final set.
Orzoł said she didn’t have much prior experience at the position before, but said the role was not too different to the passing and digging she is used to, and she was “just excited to be on the court and contribute.”
The Badgers’ calling card last season was a fearsome block, made even more fearsome by the addition of 6-foot-7 middle blocker Carter Booth. The sophomore from Colorado posted nine blocks in the scrimmage, and her arrival further fortifies a star-studded front line of Devyn Robinson, Anna Smrek and Caroline Crawford.
Badger fans will be happy to know the service game seems to have also picked up. It’s based on one match, but UW posted nine aces, with setter Izzy Ashburn, Booth and libero Gülce Güçtekin firing home two aces each. Thomas-Ailara also wowed the crowd with a powerful jump serve that is sure to worry opponent’s backlines all season.
Last year, UW lost a five-set battle to Baylor, as Lauren Harrison and Riley Simpson had 18 and 16 kills, respectively. While Harrison is gone, Simpson, a redshirt sophomore from Colorado Springs, is back for the Bears and will be leading the way up front as a 6-foot-4 middle.
Baylor’s block gave UW fits last season, and with the Badgers’ notable front wall, the battle of the blocks will likely help decide the contest.
TCU made the NCAA Tournament last year with a 17-10 record, but had its season bookended by a pair of loses to Wisconsin, including a 3-0 sweep in the Round of 32 where UW dominated with 25-9, 25-11 sets before a tight 25-23 clincher. The Horned Frogs were led by then-freshman Jayln Gibson with nine kills in that match. She’ll have another year under her belt as the Horned Frogs hope to again reach the NCAA Tournament this season.
But if the Badgers’ scrimmage is to be believed, Wisconsin will once again be a force to be reckoned with as it searches for an unbelievable fifth Big Ten title in a row and a fourth Final Four appearance in the last five seasons.
UW will have its first tests against Baylor and TCU this weekend. The Badgers battle Baylor Friday and TCU Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Central both days. Both games are on Big Ten Network.