It was hard to envision the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (11-4 overall, 7-0 Big 10) being pushed to five sets by the No. 17 Illinois Fighting Illini (9-7 overall, 4-3 Big 10) going into the night. When the Illini won sets two and three, however, Wisconsin’s spotless conference record was very much in doubt.
The Badgers saw their 2018 season come to an end at the hands of the Illini in the 2018 NCAA Regional final, and after the third set, it seemed like history was doomed to repeat itself. Dana Rettke and Grace Loberg, however, just wouldn’t let that happen. Behind the offensive efforts of those two, the Badgers stormed back to take set four 25-21, and dominated the decisive 5th set by a score of 15-4, exercising their prior demons in the process.
The Badgers flew out of the gate in the first set, looking clearly the stronger of the two teams in the opening frame. Lauren Barnes stepped up to serve with Wisconsin up 8-5 and continued to serve until the Badgers led 17-5. Illinois were disjointed from the get-go, and finished the 1st set with 7 attack errors.
In the second set, however, the game completely turned on its head. The Illini lead for practically the entire set, and whenever the Badgers narrowed the deficit, Illinois would cooly respond.
The second set appeared to be an aberration at the beginning of the third frame, however, as Madison Duello hammered home a Sydney Hilley feed to push the Badgers out to an early 12-6 lead. Then, the Illini came storming back, and Jacqueline Quade was at the center of it. The Illini outside hitter recorded three kills and a block in a 9-3 Illini run, one that was capped off by an emphatic kill from Ashlyn Fleming to tie the game at 15. The two teams traded points up until 22 all, with either team failing to generate any kind of momentum. Then, Jacqueine Quade hammered home a kill and teammate Taylor Kuper followed with a service ace, forcing set point, and eventually winning the set.
In set four the Badgers once again jumped out to an early advantage, leading 8-5, 13-10, and 16-12 in the early going. Once again, the Illini pushed back, and after a net violation from Badger outside hitter Danielle Hart, the game was knotted again at 16-16.
At the beginning of the season, the Badgers might not have had the mental fortitude to recover from another blown lead. However, the team’s confidence, built up by four consecutive ranked wins, including three over top 10 opponents, never wavered.
With the game at 21-19, Molly Haggerty elevated for an attack and slammed home a kill over the middle of the court, electrifying the Badger crowd. Soon after, Dana Rettke somehow managed an impressive kill despite losing her balance, one that brought the Badgers to the brink of set point. After a Jacqueline Quade service error, Wisconsin got the job done, with Grace Loberg officially killing the set to even the match at two sets a piece.
The Illini never quite got going in the fifth frame, with Dana Rettke recording a service run that extended from 2-2 to 7-2. Grace Loberg had three kills and Danielle Hart had three block assists, and the Badgers, energized by an electric atmosphere at the UW Field House, cruised to a 15-4 tiebreak victory.
The Badgers have looked entirely different since the beginning of Big 10 play, defeating No. 2 Nebraska, No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Minnesota, and now No. 17 Illinois in a stretch that has established Wisconsin has conference favorites.
“It’s definitely good … we’re getting a lot of confidence as we’re going forward in the Big 10 season but at the same time we’ve got a lot work to do,” said Dana Rettke when asked about the team’s morale.
“I’m awfully proud of the way our team battled … you know, you look at the stat sheet, you realize how clean of a match we played,” added head coach Kelly Sheffield after the game.
The Badgers are right back at it again on Saturday, taking on unranked Northwestern at the Field House at 7:00 PM