First To Five: Wisconsin’s Very Good Week

By Mila Jasper

Every week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper takes on the biggest stories in the Big Ten in “First to Five”. This week, Mila breaks down Wisconsin’s big weekend!

Serve and pass, serve and pass. “We have to win the serve and pass game,” said every coach ever. As much as you can’t help rolling your eyes when you hear this constant refrain (obviously you have to have a strong serve and pass game) it has never been more true that to win and win consistently, teams have to serve and receive serve at an extremely high level. 

Teams all over the country have girls who can put the ball away. Take a look at Yossiana Pressly at Baylor. Or setters that can make smart decisions. Check out Brie Orr at Iowa. Liberos that can really move? Kylie Murr at Ohio State is averaging more than 5.3 digs per set. 

But teams that can walk the fine line between aggressive serving and missing too many are few and far between. Teams that have more than two or three players who can hold serve when it matters are a rare breed. 

This week, though, Kelly Sheffield’s Wisconsin Badgers pulled off two marquee conference wins against then #5 Penn State and then #2 Nebraska, and they did it by being smart behind the service line. They came, they held serve, they conquered. 

On Wednesday, the Badgers dropped the first set to Penn State. Midway through the second set, they were still struggling to steal some momentum. That is, until Sydney Hilley walked back to the service line. 

Down 17-13, Hilley neatly sunk two aces in a row. No sweat. The All-American held serve for another rally, and suddenly it was a one point game. Wisconsin was feeling it. 

From that moment on, Wisconsin never gave the Nittany Lions an inch to operate. Lauren Barnes came on the court to hit two aces to end the third set, 25-13. Barnes and Hilley again led the way behind the service line in the fourth – another 25-13 blow to State. 

Nebraska didn’t fare any better receiving Wisconsin’s serves than Penn State did. The two teams in red and white went point for point all the way through the first set. A Badgers sideout tied the match again at 21-21. Libero Tiffany Clark, undaunted even in a hostile Bob Devaney Center, headed to the line. Two overpass kills and a bonus point later, Wisconsin had game point.  

And Molly Haggerty’s service run changed the course of the second set when she held for three points to retake the lead for the first time since 4-3. After 18-17, the Badgers stiff-armed Nebraska, maintaining a two-point distance to 25. 

Nebraska was feeling the pressure in the third, and the set stayed point for point through 20-20. Then it as Dana Rettke’s turn to tee off. She hit an ace and held serve for two more points before Nebraska got the ball back. Wisconsin rolled to the 25-22 finish to complete the sweep. 

That’s no less than five different players who proved they were able to step up from behind the service line exactly when it mattered.

It’s hard to overstate the excellence of what Wisconsin pulled off here. If there was a volleyball textbook, these two matches should be included under the definition of how to manage a game. The Badgers stuck tightly to their opponents until they saw an opening. Then they struck. 

Wisconsin was successful because they were able to put together just one critical three-point run per set. One three-point run is all it takes to secure the W. 

The wins had to be particularly validating for Wisconsin, whose four non-conference losses were unexpected to say the least. Dropping a five set thriller to Marquette after taking the 2-0 lead? Unusual. Following it up with a 4-set loss to Baylor? Not what you like to see. Succumbing to Washington twice in a row? Ring the alarm bells. 

Yet now, Wisconsin is one of the few teams on the national stage that is trending upwards. Stanford lost to Washington. Then Washington turned around and lost to an unranked USC. Kentucky knocked down Florida in an SEC showdown. Texas and Baylor are inching closer and closer to their October 23rd showdown. Nebraska began faltering even before the Wisconsin sweep. 

If Wisconsin can continue to back up their experienced, well-balanced lineup with the kind of serving that swings matches, they are going to be formidable. After the Badgers come to Evanston on Wednesday, they will face their next test in Minnesota – one of the only other teams that also seems to be following a positive trajectory. 

That match will be a must-watch. Keep an eye out for those three-point service runs. That’s where wins are made.

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