The Badgers most recent victory over Michigan last Sunday may not have come without the late-set heroics of outside hitter Lauryn Gillis. With Wisconsin trailing 22-24 on a Michigan set point, the senior star sprang into action, striking down three straight kills to even the score, playing in peak form even as the stakes grew higher.
“[Game point] was the last thing on our minds, especially mine. In those moments, I was just playing all out and that took away a lot the fear aspect. I could just play my game free,” Gillis said.
For Gillis, the ability to remain grounded at all times, whether dominating a match or staring down defeat, is a skill mastered through practice and preparation as the Badgers work diligently to focus on the situation instead of the score.
“We play this game called ‘winning time’ in practice and you don’t have a score, you’re just playing. Kelly [Sheffield] could call the game at any point and it’s over because we don’t know the score. So, in my head that’s where I was,” Gillis said.
“If we didn’t do training like that in practice, and if we didn’t have those drills all the time, I might’ve felt more stress at the time. But, because I’m so used to having pressure put on me in practice, I can play through it.”
It’s not just Gillis who’s learning to play through stress. During its first taste of Big Ten play, No. 7 Wisconsin (1-1 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) endured a brutally tough weekend, featuring two competitive matches, one of which ended in a Badgers loss.
While the non-conference season consisted of a slew of sweeps and decisive victories, UW hit its first bump in the road Friday night, falling to Michigan State in heartbreaking fashion. Although the five-set defeat was the first for many of the team’s young players, freshman setter Sydney Hilley looked at it from a different vantage point.
“Obviously we weren’t super happy after the game,” Hilley said. “We knew we had that and we let it go. But I think it can be a positive thing if we learn from it ... That’s really cool that you could lose every night. It wasn’t like that in high school and club. You could play bad and still win. But in the Big Ten, if you don’t bring your A-game, you get beat by anyone.”
Wisconsin would be smart to carry that mentality over into its upcoming road trip. In their second weekend away from Madison, the Badgers will visit two cities. This Friday, they will pay a visit to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes. Then, they venture out to Nebraska for a date with Cornhuskers Saturday night. Just like the previous pair of matches, both of these opponents should challenge UW.
Iowa,(12-3, 1-1) while not known for its volleyball prowess, may be turning the corner in 2017. The Hawkeyes are a young team anchored by freshman Brie Orr, a rising star at setter. The 5’10’’ phenom places second in the conference in assists and 19th in the country. At the attack line, Iowa is led by junior outside hitter Taylor Louis, averaging a team-high 3.5 kills per set. The offense has also received a lift from newly-emerging freshman hitter Claire Sheehan, who recorded 22 kills and three blocks last weekend. The Hawkeye’s 12 wins thus far has them tied for the most in the Big Ten, and their huge upset over No. 2 Penn State last Friday shows they cannot be taken lightly.
Wisconsin will conclude its road trip with a marquee matchup against a vaunted opponent in what traditionally proves as a tough place to play. The eighth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0, 9-3) moved up five spots in the AVCA top-25 poll this week after going undefeated in the opening round of conference play, sweeping both Penn State and Rutgers on the road. One player the Badgers will have to keep an eye on is senior hitter Annika Albrecht. On a torrid start to the year, Albrecht is averaging 4.69 kills per set on a .371 hitting percentage over the last four matches, earning her Player of the Week both in the Big Ten and nationally. Another weapon in the Huskers’ arsenal is junior hitter Mikaela Foecke, the team’s leading scorer. The success of those two attackers has helped turn Nebraska into an explosive offense, producing the second most kills in the conference. To complement their lethal scoring capabilities, The Cornhuskers also boast one of the best defenses, as it has held each of its 12 opponents under .250 hitting.
The action will get underway from the Hawkeye-Carver Arena in Iowa City this Friday, and then resume at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb. this Saturday. Both of the Badgers’ matches will begin at 7 p.m.