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Wisconsin volleyball team readies for showdown with Nebraska

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This has the making of a Black Friday tradition.

Call it the volleyball version of Ohio State-Michigan football on the final weekend of the Big Ten season.

For the second consecutive year the University of Wisconsin will face Nebraska in the penultimate match of the season with the Big Ten championship in the balance.

Last year the two teams were tied for first place when they met at the UW Field House, with the Badgers clinching at least a tie for the title with a sweep. That match was viewed by a Big Ten Network audience of 375,000.

It was such a big hit that the conference and the network set up a rematch this year as part of a final weekend extravaganza. They hedged their bet somewhat by bringing the top four preseason contenders into the mix.

The No. 3 Badgers (23-3, 17-1 Big Ten) and No. 5 Cornhuskers (24-3, 16-2) have fully lived up to expectations as they head into their showdown, with UW in position to win its fourth consecutive conference title outright with a victory.

In the undercard, No. 9 Minnesota (18-8, 13-5) will face No. 8 Ohio State (19-7, 15-3) in Columbus. The Badgers and Gophers will flip-flop opponents on Saturday. All but the Minnesota-Ohio State match will be televised by BTN.

“It certainly makes for compelling viewing,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I would say these will probably be some of the most watched volleyball matches in BTN history.”

As if there needs to be any more incentive, the Big Ten champion likely will receive a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament, allowing it to host the regional rounds.

While the Badgers have the clearest path to a title, the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes still have hopes. Nebraska can win the title outright if it wins both matches and UW loses both. If Nebraska wins twice and UW splits, the two would share the title.

Ohio State could gain a three-way share with two wins, two UW losses and a Nebraska split, losing Saturday to Minnesota. The Buckeyes’ prospects were dimmed by upset home losses to Maryland and Indiana last weekend, knocking them out of a share of the lead.

But clearly, the UW-Nebraska match is the main event, as not only a replay of last year’s conference decider but also the national championship matchup three weeks later.

“I hadn’t even thought about the fact that somebody was back there scheduling this in a way that it lines up for people expected to win the Big Ten to be playing each other at the end,” UW middle blocker Danielle Hart said. “I can’t think of a better way to top off the regular season than having the competition that we have in front of us going into the tournament. It’s really exciting.

“Nebraska is always a fun one. Looking back on the highlights of my career, a lot of them are playing Nebraska.”

As a sixth-year player, Hart is the only Badgers player who has been part of a team that lost to Nebraska. That was in 2017 when Hart was redshirting and, thus, did not play in the five-set loss in Lincoln.

Since then, the Badgers have won nine straight over the Cornhuskers, a source of quiet pride for the Badgers and open aggravation to the Cornhuskers. Just two of those matches have been played at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, which figures to be a raucous setting.

“It’s going to be crazy,” Nebraska senior Kenzie Knuckles said.

Hart actually is looking forward to the experience.

“Besides playing at the Field House, I think playing at Nebraska is my favorite place to play just because the fans are so energetic and so loud,” she said. “The atmosphere is just awesome. These are the kind of matches that you play for, the kind of atmosphere that you want as an athlete. It’s not anything you fear, it’s something you totally soak up and enjoy. Even if it’s not your fans, who cares? The energy is a whole lot of fun. It’s what makes Big Ten volleyball so special.

“And there’s something really beautiful about going in there when it gets really quiet. That’s really fun to come in there and you can only hear the team cheering.”

The opportunity to experience such matches is what motivated Sarah Franklin to transfer to UW from Michigan State.

“I have dreamed of this moment from when I was a little kid looking up at college volleyball players,” Franklin said. “I was like, I wonder if I can be like that one day? So it’s awesome. I get to play the sport I love and it’s exciting.

“I’ve always had a thing about Nebraska because they’ve always been the top dog, No. 1, and you always want to take down the top dog, No. 1. So coming to Wisconsin and knowing that Wisconsin is a very big competitor of Nebraska, I took that in right away. So it’s really fun for me.”

Franklin has played one match at Devaney and it was anything but fun. She had just five kills with six errors as her Michigan State team was swept easily.

“Absolutely atrocious,” she said of her play. “Trust me, I remember. I’m ready to get back there and change that. They’ve seen what I can do and I’m ready to do it again. It’s awesome to play there, it really is.”

Franklin had perhaps her best match as a Badgers player in the first meeting with the Cornhuskers a month ago with 21 kills (.381) in UW’s sweep.

A trait of this year’s UW team is that different players have stepped up with big performances in different matches. Of late it has been Hart who has shined, with four consecutive errorless matches, hitting .706 over that span with 36 kills in 51 attempts.

“Dan is in a great place,” Sheffield said. “You look at that fifth set against Penn State, she had two kills and three stuff blocks, out of 15 points. That’s just taking over the match and that’s being calm and reading. She was really really good in big moments. I’m proud of her. How could you not be rooting for the kid? She’s playing the best volleyball of her career right now.”

Junior right side Devyn Robinson also is coming off a big weekend with 27 kills (.344) and 12 blocks against Rutgers and Penn State. That came after a rough weekend in which she was pulled from the Maryland match in the first set.

“She was in attack mode,” Sheffield said. “She’s at her best when she’s going after stuff rather than letting stuff come to her. I think when she’s in attack mode she’s one of the best players in the country.”

The Badgers’ dominance over the Cornhuskers in recent years may have raised their profile, but it has done nothing to tarnish Nebraska’s standing with Sheffield.

“It’s a program that I’ve respected, we’ve respected, for as long as I’ve been in this profession,” he said. “Looking at how they go about things, how they train, how they run a program, the interaction with their fan base, there are a lot of things we’ve taken from them or we’ve tried to model after them a little bit. There’s tremendous respect toward them. I would guess that would be mutual as we’ve kind of moved up a little bit.

“When you have programs that have been consistently good, which both of these programs have been over a long period of time, you find yourself in really big matches at the end of the season. It’s what competitors want to be in. You want to be in these types of matches. You want to be in these types of environments.

“I’m sure their arena will be as loud as it’s ever been. Our players embrace that. It’s awesome, when you’re in college environments that are loud and energized and there’s a lot on the line and you get to test yourself. It’s cool. It’s got to be cool for these athletes to be part of matches like this.”

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