Coveted freshman class pushes Wisconsin past Louisville, Badgers secure sweep in season opener

Kelli Bates led UW with 20 kills in Wisconsin's five set loss to Nebraska Saturday night. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Following an offseason rife with roster turnover and personnel change, the Wisconsin Badgers arrived at the UW Field House Friday night in its opening match of 2017 looking quite different than it had a year ago.

Despite adding eight players over the summer, seven of whom are freshmen, the reconfigured, seventh-ranked Badgers (1-0) appeared to have little trouble finding their footing on the floor, sweeping the Louisville Cardinals (0-1) by a score of 25-18, 25-19, 26-24 in the first round of the annual Big Ten/ACC challenge.

For a team comprised of thirteen underclassmen, the fate of the Badgers’ season will largely rest in the hands of players who have yet to prove themselves at the collegiate level.

But if Friday’s victory over Louisville serves as any indication of things to come, head coach Kelly Sheffield’s team should fare just fine.

"We had a lot of people playing their first real match here,” Sheffield said. “I thought our team did really well. I thought we were poised, and I thought we did a great job of bouncing back after errors.”

Among the Badger newcomers, the performance of 6’8’’ freshman middle blocker Dana Rettke particularly stood out. The Illinois native made a statement in her collegiate debut, racking up a team-high fifteen kills while adding three digs as well. First-year setter Sydney Hilley, the heir-apparent to all-time great Lauren Carlini, also had a large impact, collecting a match-best 36 assists along with four kills, three digs and one block.

"I waited four years to play my first game," Hilley said. “People tell you how cool the atmosphere is, but you don't know until you actually play in it. That was the coolest thing I've ever done, play in front of that huge crowd, and I love it."

In the first set, Wisconsin came out swinging and set the tone early, taking a commanding 10-3 lead that would force Louisville to call a quick timeout. Things did not get any easier for the Cardinals once play resumed, however, as the Badgers continued their beatdown by bullying the opposition at the net.

Coming out of the break, junior middle blocker Tionna Williams immediately added to the lead, scoring off a block and a kill on consecutive plays to make it 12-3. Rettke also impressed up front, notching four kills and two blocks in the first set of her college career. And senior outside hitter Kelli Bates tallied four kills, as the Badgers cruised to 1-0 advantage in the match.

Louisville looked better in the middle set, but still couldn’t do enough to overcome UW. With the score even at seven apiece, Rettke once again came through for her new team, delivering back-to-back kills off a pair of serves from sophomore libero M.E. Dodge to hand Wisconsin a slim 9-8 advantage.

While Wisconsin never managed to dominate as it did in the previous set, the Badgers were able to create just enough cushion to hang on. After clinging to a narrow margin for much of the set, crucial kills from Rettke, Bates and sophomore Madison Duello would doom the Cardinals. Prevailing in the second set 25-19, UW would head into the third set with a chance at a sweep.

Louisville may have been down entering the third set but it certainly was not out. After falling behind 16-11 in the middle of the frame, the Cardinals came clawing back, riding a 5-2 run that would eventually tie the score at 17-17. Then, a subsequent kill from Louisville’s Amanda Green as well as a costly Wisconsin attack error put the visiting team in front by two.

The Badgers fought hard, however, and came from behind, relying on two first-time starters to complete the comeback. With each team trading points late in the match, Rettke recorded a set-tying kill, which would set the stage for her fellow blocker Duello to deliver the knockout blow, scoring on match point two possessions later.

"I love those moments,” Rettke said about the third set. “I just know, that it’s go time. You've got to perform in those moments. It tests everybody, and we pulled through."

The Badgers will round out the opening weekend of their 2017 campaign Saturday night, when they play host to No. 11 North Carolina. That match will begin at 7:00 p.m.

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