EVANSTON, Ill. — Letdown? What letdown?
Coming off two inspirational victories over top-five ranked teams, the University of Wisconsin volleyball team might have seemed prone to looking past Northwestern, the only unranked opponent in a string of five matches.
But the No. 7 Badgers would have none of that as they rolled to a sweep of the Wildcats 25-23, 25-15, 25-19 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday night.
“I’m really proud of how we approached this match,” said redshirt junior Molly Haggerty. “I think it would be easy for us to think about the past and maybe look ahead, but I think we gave them our best match. We really respected them by playing our best for them.”
Coach Kelly Sheffield has drilled that approach into his players and sees the fact that they buy into that mindset as a sign of maturity. It’s also the mindset of a champion.
“This is a mature team,” Sheffield said. “When you play 20 matches, every match is worth the same. You don’t get bonus points for any of them, so the teams that win a Big Ten championship show consistency over time. There are so many good players and good teams here that if you pick and choose when you’re going to turn it on, you’re going to get beat.
“This team is on a mission. When you’re on a mission you don’t take a night off.”
The Badgers (9-4, 5-0 Big Ten) displayed a multifaceted offense with junior setter Sydney Hilley spreading the ball around to all of her hitters. Haggerty led the way with 11 kills, while redshirt senior Madison Duello had 10, juniors Dana Rettke and Grace Loberg each had nine and redshirt sophomore Danielle Hart added seven.
The result was an efficient offense as the Badgers hit .391 for the match, the second highest mark of the season and their third consecutive match hitting better than .300.
“I think we’re a hard team to play when we’re a balanced offense,” said Duello, who is just getting back to full health after battling some early season injuries. “Teams have to prioritize someone and it has to be tough when we’re all playing well at once.”
Most often the player that’s going to attract the most defensive attention is Rettke, who reached the 1,000-kill mark for her career. She becomes the 23rd UW player to reach that mark and the second fastest to get there.
“She is definitely the one they focus on,” Duello said. “We kind of work on it in practice that we have to take advantage when teams do that and the pins get the ball. They’re putting so much pressure on her, so we’ve got to put the ball away when it’s our turn.”
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In contrast, the Wildcats (9-8, 0-5) rely on dynamic freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara for much of their offense. And while she had her usual big night — 17 of Northwestern’s 33 kills on 39 of its 87 swings — the Badgers managed to limit her damage as the match went along. She had seven kills in the first set, but hit just .167 over the last two sets.
“She’s a phenomenal player and it’s crazy to think she’s just a freshman,” Haggerty said. “She’s incredible. I don’t think we see many players like her so that was most of our game plan, to stop her.”
Sheffield was pleased with the way his team defended Thomas-Ailara, but he’s not looking forward to facing her for 3½ more years.
“She’s got incredible upside,” he said. “I thought our left side defense was good. She’s such a dynamic attacker out of the front row and the back row. She hits the back row like she’s a front row attacker. But we didn’t let her go wild. We made some adjustments and slowed her down a little. But that kid has an incredible, long future in this sport.”
And as impressive as she was, she was no match for the Badgers’ balanced attack.
“Sydney is utilizing her weapons,” Sheffield said. “I think you’re seeing the continuing development of certain players. Our left sides are getting better and better, Danielle is becoming a bigger weapon for us.
“I saw a team tonight that wants to continue to get better.”
Wisconsin 25 25 25
Northwestern 23 15 19
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-6-0, Hilley 1-0-5, Ashburn 0-6-0, Duello 10-2-0, Rettke 9-1-5, Clark 0-8-0, Hart 7 1-4, Dodge 0-3-0, Loberg 9-2-3, Haggerty 11-2-1. Totals 47-31-9.
NORTHWESTERN (kills-digs-blocks) — Lee 0-0-0, Lindroth 0-1-0, Ehman 0-4-0, Pitsas 0-10-0, McNulty 1-3-0, Thomas-Ailara 17-4-4, Cronister 0-0-2, Williams 6-0-2, Robinson 7-1-0, Walker 1-0-1, Becker 1-0-1. Totals 33-25-6.
Hitting percentage — W .391, N .207. Aces — W 5 (Rettke 2), N 4 (Walker 2). Assists — W 47 (Hilley 43), N 30 (McNulty 27).