Letting a lead slip away can be a jarring experience for any athlete, as missed opportunities and improbable collapses may damage the collective confidence or emotional state of the team. But for No. 7 Wisconsin (2-2 Big Ten, 11-2 overall) — after allowing a two-set advantage over Nebraska turn into another painful five-set loss last Saturday — there is no time to lament old wounds.
“It’s really early in the season and we’re going against great teams that we’re going to see again,” outside hitter Lauryn Gillis said about splitting the first four matches of conference play. “It’s not, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re two and two, we’re out of the Big Ten championship picture.’ That’s the opposite of what we’re thinking.
“I think our coaches really emphasize going game by game, not focusing on the past or the future.”
Set to partake in another highly-anticipated Big Ten tilt, the Badgers have turned their attention toward the match that awaits them Wednesday night, a meeting with sixth-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. Seeking to vanquish Minnesota (2-2, 13-2) for the first time in two years, Wisconsin seems hellbent on putting that streak to an end.
“It really fires us up,” Gillis said. “We’ve been close in a lot of those games and we know that this our time — we’re really confident going in. We take it as an advantage. They’re not ready to lose or ready for us to jump all over them.”
After taking their shot at Minnesota, the Badgers will hit the road for East Lansing, playing No. 14 Michigan State (11-2, 4-0) for the second time as they hope to avenge a loss to the Spartans earlier this season.
To survive one of its toughest stretches of the season, Wisconsin will need to sure up its passing game. Crisp passes are key to offensive flow and efficiency, and struggling to serve the ball, as was proven at Nebraska, can cause the offense to stagnate, becoming one-dimensional and easy to predict.
“If you’re passing isn’t good, than those defenders and middle blockers can set-up on the wing players and take your middle hitter out of the equation, which gives the setter a lot less options,” Gillis said. “One thing we noticed is that when we’re passing really well, we’re playing really well. And we’re usually winning those games when we’re passing real well. Then, when our passing drops off, that’s when things get a little shaky.”
Both of the Badgers’ upcoming opponents feature similar strengths. Minnesota and Michigan State each boast dynamic, high-octane offenses fueled by tremendous serving. The catalyst for the Gophers is junior all-American setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who leads the Big Ten in assists, averaging just over 12 dimes per set. Seliger-Swenson benefits from having one of the most prolific attackers in the conference at her disposal. Freshman Stephanie Samedy averages just over four kills per set, a mark which ranks second highest in the Big Ten.
The Spartans, who kicked off their conference slate by upsetting UW at the Field House, is a team loaded with seniors and built around serving. One of only two Big Ten teams still undefeated, MSU leads the Big Ten in service aces, a skill which disrupted the Badgers defense and brought them increasingly out of system towards the end of the previous match. They will also have to devise a more effective method to contain senior Brooke Kranda, who carved up the Badgers defense with 20 kills in the first contest.
In the eyes of head coach Kelly Sheffield, the fate of this weekend will all come down to consistency.
“The question is can we be really good for long periods,” Sheffield said. “That’s the magic question in the Big Ten. It’s something that we’re discussing and I think it’s about keeping the right frame of mind. I think we’ve been really good for short bursts, but we’re trying to work on being good at our skills for longer periods of time.”
Wisconsin will host Minnesota at the Field House Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Then, the Badgers will travel to play Michigan State in a Saturday matinee starting at 3 p.m.