By Vince Huth
the daily cardinal
As far as non-conference résumés go, the Wisconsin volleyball team’s (12-1 overall) is hard to beat. One loss in 13 matches is impressive enough, but it’s the coast-to-coast nature in which the Badgers plowed through their non-conference slate that is truly impressive.
Wisconsin picked up the first ‘W’ of its current 11-match win streak during its final match at the South Florida Invitational, and a three-match sweep the following weekend at the Long Beach State Invitational kept the momentum rolling.
The Badgers returned home six days later to host the InnTowner Invitational, where they swept through three matches to reclaim the tournament title (Notre Dame won the event in 2011). Wisconsin made the most of its final tune-up before Big Ten play, winning the Georgia Southern Eagle Invitational in Statesboro, Ga.
Eleven wins over four weekends—not to mention losing just eight sets over that span—doesn’t happen to just any team. This weekend’s road tilts with Northwestern (11-0 overall) and Illinois (6-4 overall), however, will give Wisconsin head coach Pete Wait a better measure of where his team stands.
The Badgers haven’t played the toughest competition this season, but that will change with a Big Ten conference that is as deep as any in the nation, with seven teams ranked in the top-25 and three more—Wisconsin included—not too far outside.
“It’s hugely important to get off to a good start [in Big Ten play],” Waite said. “And we’ve positioned ourselves well with pre-conference play.”
Wisconsin will face a Northwestern team Friday night that has had a similar early-season story. The Wildcats haven’t lost a match, but their opponents have won an average of just four.
Perhaps the strongest part of Northwestern’s game this season has been its serving—the Wildcats rank No. 12 in the nation in aces per set. However, the Badgers won’t change their serve defense going into Friday’s game because of it.
“I think we have the best libero in the game in [junior] Annemarie [Hickey],” senior middle blocker Alexis Mitchell said. “And I think we have one of the best pass games, too.”
Illinois, who will host the Badgers Sunday afternoon, has played a rather daunting non-conference slate. The Fighting Illini played six ranked opponents in their first ten matches. Although Illinois picked up just two wins in those six matches, it enters Big Ten play more battle tested than the Badgers.
Wisconsin (No. 18) and Illinois (No. 21) both rank among the nation’s best in blocking efficiency. The battle at the net could be the determining factor Sunday, but the Badgers aren’t approaching the match with that mindset.
Waite said often, when two teams with similar strengths square off, the match outcome ultimately comes down to other facets. Mitchell also suggested Sunday’s winner will do more than simply block well.
“It really comes down to whoever comes to play,” she said.
As if this weekend’s road trip won’t be a tough test already, the Badgers will return to Madison for their conference home opener Friday night against No. 4 Penn State. In a conference as tough as the Big Ten, Waite knows it is imperative to hit home the “one [match] at a time” cliché.
“If anything, we’re more focused on playing at home than who we’re actually playing,” senior outside hitter Mary Ording said.
“Anybody can beat anybody in the Big Ten,” Waite added. “Nobody’s looking any further than Northwestern.”