Opening conference play with a 2-0 record for the first time since 2013, No. 3 Wisconsin (2-0 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) hopes to remain in the upper echelon of a loaded Big Ten hierarchy with road matchups against No. 14 Purdue (1-1, 11-2) and Indiana (1-1, 12-3) this weekend.
In a year in which expectations for the volleyball team already appeared extraordinarily great, Wisconsin has gone on to set a seemingly impossible high standard for itself to start 2016. Saddled with a remarkably rigorous September schedule, the Badgers have survived the gauntlet, defeating five top-20 opponents through their first 11 matches.
Central to Wisconsin’s dominance is the theme of hard-nosed defense, a quality which distinguishes it from a vast number of schools. Statistically speaking, UW ranks high in a plethora of categories, placing first in the Big Ten in blocks per set and digs per set.
Sophomore Tionna Williams, a driving force behind the Badgers’ stout defense, says the team’s defensive prowess comes from a never-ending commitment to mental toughness.
A three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week in 2016, Williams’ deep dedication to defense seems indefatigable, as she constantly works to improve her ability on that end of the floor. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Williams listed defensive improvement as a top priority in practice this week.
“We always overemphasize our defense. We have a really good defensive team, whether it’s in the backcourt or at the net with blocking, so we’re just gonna really stick to that and just take care of our side of the net.”
On Friday, Wisconsin will square off against a Purdue team that is coming off of its most efficient offensive match of the season, hitting at an impressive .517 clip to beat Indiana last weekend. Williams, an Indiana native, recognizes that playing with a high defensive intensity will be necessary to slow down a potent opposing offense.
“We have to keep a strong mentality,” Williams said. “They’re gonna get their points and we are too, so we can’t let them get into our heads. We can’t back down from a challenge, so we have to rise in those situations and just really have to dig deeper.”
Along with defense, another element of the Badgers’ game plan that is starting to come together is serving. In this past weekend alone, Wisconsin averaged 2.00 service aces per set, due in large part to outstanding play from two team captains. Junior Kelli Bates recorded a career-high four aces Friday versus Ohio State, and senior Lauren Carlini followed suit with four aces of her own in Saturday’s win over Maryland, tying her career high.
Compared to what we saw last season, the Badgers’ success serving the ball has progressed immensely, with both Carlini and Bates looking more comfortable in that area. Bates attributes the better serving to hard work and lots of practice.
“I’ve been spending so much time throughout the off-season and in practice just constantly being aware of my serve and what’s making it good or what’s making it bad, and putting myself in game like situations all the time,” she said. “I know Kelly [Sheffield] has been working with Lauren on whatever she’s been trying to do.”
The steady serving has afforded the Badgers an added weapon that will surely pay dividends this season.
“It helps that we work on it so much,” Bates explained. “Training yourself to do those things helps make yourself more of a force from the backline, especially if things aren’t going your way somewhere else.”
As it pertains to this weekend’s road stint, Bates cites composure and physicality as keys to success in both contests.
“We have to stay disciplined in the backcourt and handle the first ball and just ball out from there. We know Purdue is really physical at the net and they’re a really good team this year, so I think it’ll be a really good game. Indiana is a really tough serving team, so it’s just gonna be a battle for the passers. We have to remember to stay disciplined this weekend.”
Wisconsin starts the weekend with a match against Purdue at 7 p.m. Friday night before moving on to face Indiana Sunday at 5 p.m.