The No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (6-0 Big Ten, 14-1 overall) have a tough slate of games ahead of them this week, taking on No. 3 Minnesota (5-1, 13-2) on Wednesday and No. 18 Michigan (4-2, 15-3) in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday, Oct. 15.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history, but that does not mean much to head coach Kelly Sheffield.
“We just don’t put much thought into it,” Sheffield said. “They don’t hang banners for being ranked No. 1 in a coaches poll in the middle of the season.”
The biggest struggle for the Badgers will be slowing down Minnesota’s offense, which leads the Big Ten with 14.4 kills per set. UW should be up the task, though, as they lead the conference averaging 2.94 blocks and 15.11 digs per set.
The challenge for the outstanding defense of Wisconsin will be dealing with the speed of the Golden Gophers’ attack.
“They run a really fast offense, which is a little different from us,” sophomore middle blocker Tionna Williams said. “We just got to stay levelheaded, got to be mindful of what they do and what they’re capable of; they are going to get their points and we realize that, at the same time we just have to have a gritty mentality and do what we do best.”
The trial doesn’t end there for the Badgers though; Michigan ranks second in the Big Ten in kills per set, led by senior Abby Cole’s 3.65 kills per set. Cole also leads the defense for Michigan with 1.16 blocks per set, though she is far from the only crucial cog in the Wolverine machine.
Setter MacKenzi Welsh leads the team in assists and is second on the team in digs despite being just a freshman. But Michigan isn’t the only team with a young player shining for their team—Williams has set a career high in kills twice in the last three matches and leads the Badgers in blocks.
“We are focusing a lot on transition in the gym, and just driving hard every single time,” she said. “I’m just trying to transfer that into matches, so every time I get the opportunity to score and help my team out then I’ve got to drive hard.”
The emergence of Williams and freshman Molly Haggerty offensively has been critical to UW’s supreme dominance over the past few weeks.
“They work hard; both of them are good athletes,” Sheffield said. “They are young players just getting more experience, and that’s paying off for them.”
Wisconsin will kick off its daunting week with Minnesota on Wednesday in the Wisconsin Field House at 8 p.m. before traveling to Ann Arbor to meet Michigan at 6 p.m. Saturday.