Wisconsin stresses defense in preparation for Badger Classic

Senior hitter Lauryn Gillis helped keep UW alive in a back-and-fourth set that served as a major turning point in Wisconsin's match on Sunday.

Image By: Jessi Schoville

Building a strong defense is a task that generally takes time and practice. Progression on the defensive side of the court typically occurs at a gradual pace, as players slowly develop a rapport with one another and learn how to play together as one cohesive unit. However, teams without much experience may        struggle—at least in the beginning—to play consistent defense.

Head Coach Kelly Sheffield knows this well, and that is why he has oriented the last several weeks of practice around defense, recognizing that succeeding defensively will require patience and hard work from his young team.

“You see so many different offenses and attack routes,” Sheffield said. “So being able to know what your blocking responsibilities are when plays are constantly changing, what shots you want to take away at the net and understanding the relationship between the front-row and the back-row and how they work together takes a lot of time.”

Although the process by which a top-tier defense materializes may be long and methodical, Sheffield’s dedication to improving that area of this Wisconsin team appears to have already yielded some positive results. Amid an impressive start to the 2017 season, the undefeated No. 5 Badgers (7-0) added two more wins to their resume this past week—with defense playing an integral role in each of those victories.

UW began by battering the Lipscomb Bison with a frenzy of blocks Thursday, recording a school record 16 rejections in the match. The Badgers then returned to the Field House Saturday night and delivered a similar drubbing, this time to Texas A&M, as they tallied 11 blocks and held the Aggies to an abysmal .077 hitting percentage.

The Badgers will look to keep that trend going as they enter their home Badger Classic tournament this week. In its final installment of non-conference play this season, Wisconsin will host the Marquette Golden Eagles (5-4), and they will also welcome in the identically-named Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (9-4).

Wisconsin’s defense, especially the block, will be up against a big challenge when UW faces Marquette. The Golden Eagles feature some serious length through the likes of sophomore outside hitter Allie Barber, redshirt junior middle hitter Jenna Rosenthal and sophomore middle blocker Sandy Mohr, who all check in at six-foot-four or taller.

In preparation, UW freshman middle blocker Dana Rettke says she and her teammates continue to emphasize defense in practice, as the middles focus on fortifying the front-court.

“We’re really working on getting our hands in and turning our hands so the ball stays in the court,” Rettke said. “We’re also working on closing our block and just making sure we’re getting good solid touches so we can get stuff blocks or so the back-row can pick it up.”

The Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi, on the other hand, may make things tougher on the Badgers' offense. In eleven matches, Southern Miss has held opponents to hitting percentages below .100 on five separate occasions. The stingy defense has the potential to give Wisconsin’s attack problems, but if freshman setter Sydney Hilley, the Big Ten’s current assist leader, continues to pass with proficiency, UW’s hitters and middles should be able to breakthrough.

“The success in the middle has a lot to do with passing,” Rettke said. “The passers are doing an awesome job getting the ball to Syd, getting good three-option passes. I think as long as we keep that up we’ll be good.”

Obviously happy with how things are unfolding thus far, Sheffield is hoping to see his team continue to progress incrementally, improving little by little as the volleyball season marches on.

“We’ve spent some time on our blocking because we’d like to see that get stronger,” Sheffield said. “We’ve spent some time reading defensively—we’d like to get a little better with that. We’re not trying to make massive jumps. We’re not trying to go from good to great overnight. We’re just trying to get a little better everyday.”

The action will get underway Thursday night, when Wisconsin collides with state rival Marquette, followed by its matchup with Southern Mississippi Saturday. Both contests start at 7p.m. in the Field House.

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