Wisconsin senior outside hitter Kelli Bates was unabashedly clear about what a win over rival Minnesota would mean to her.
“I’d love to end my career by beating Minnesota,” Bates said. “I mean, the last time we beat them was my freshman year, so it’s been a while. Either way, I’m always really excited to play them, but I really want a win for this team and this program.”
Bates and her fellow Badgers will get an opportunity to accomplish that goal this weekend. In a rematch with the No. 2 Golden Gophers set for this Saturday, No. 8 UW (4-4 Big Ten, 13-4 overall) will seek to defeat its archnemesis for the first time since 2015, a drought that seems particularly odd given the paramount success the team has enjoyed during that span.
But any designs on beating second-ranked Minnesota will have to wait until after the Badgers take on Maryland Wednesday night. Although most of the commotion this week will surround the upcoming showdown in Minneapolis, UW has been careful not to overlook any of its Big Ten counterparts, much less a Terrapins team that sits merely a game behind them in the conference standings. A relative newcomer to Big Ten volleyball, Maryland (3-5, 14-6) largely resembles a program on the rise, equipped with a stellar stockpile of young talent and a home atmosphere that makes it tough on a visiting opponent.
“It’s truly one of the hardest places to play in the conference,” Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield said in his weekly press conference Monday morning. “It’s really loud. It’s like a nightclub with the lights on.”
The biggest thing the Badgers having going for them right now is confidence. After stumbling to a 2-4 start in Big Ten play, Wisconsin turned things around last week, moving up two spots in the AVCA top-25 poll behind a pair of victories, the first of which was a significant upset over then-fourth-ranked Nebraska.
“That needed to happen,” Bates said of the back-to-back wins. “Those kind of games are really important right now because we lost a lot in the beginning of Big Ten, so it’s just a matter of being gritty and being tough and getting those wins we need to get.”
A gritty and tenacious style of play will certainly be necessary for Wisconsin to have success in Minnesota. Led by elite setter and Big Ten assist leader Samantha Seliger-Swenson, Minnesota (6-2, 17-2) boasts one of the most explosive offenses in the country, a dynamic scoring attack known for its high speed and frenetic pace. The Gophers ability to fly around the court and put points on the board in a hurry will present a real challenge for a Wisconsin defense whose main task this weekend will be to stymie momentum and not allow Minnesota to collect points in bunches.
“Everyone just needs to be a little bit more engaged and a little quicker to react,” said Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke about the defensive strategy. “Everyone will need to do their best to read the setter because, with their setter, you don’t have a lot of time to get to those balls.”
In the first meeting between these two foes earlier this month, the Badgers blew a 2-1 set-lead and ended up dropping a five-set heartbreaker in Madison. Sparked by a breakout 24-kill performance by outside hitter Alexis Hart, Minnesota caught Wisconsin by surprise and managed to come from behind and snatch away a victory from the Badgers.
“We know their tendencies pretty well by now,” Bates said. “One of their outsides got really hot, and we weren’t expecting that. They’ve got some big hitters so we’ve to prepare for everything this time. We can’t afford to lose these games.”
Wisconsin will hit the road for Maryland to take on the Terrapins Wednesday night at 5 p.m. Then, the Badgers will wrap up their weekend by traveling to Minneapolis for a marquee matchup with the Gophers this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Both matches will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.