Wisconsin volleyball coach Pete Waite was asked if had a "wild card'' up his sleeve. That could be one player who has the potential to impact the mix, if she hasn't already, and make everyone better. That could be one player who is just beginning to understand how good she can be.
"Crystal Graff is starting to break out coming off an injury,'' Waite said of his sophomore outside hitter from Madison La Follette High School. "We didn't expect her to be on top of her game right away. But each week she's looking better and better.''
Waite knows what Graff can do when healthy. As a freshman, she started 19 of 20 matches before a leg injury sidelined her for the second half of the season and the spring. On Aug. 31, she had 13 kills against Cal State Northridge, just two shy of her career high of 15 set at NC State last year.
Waite had another "wild card'' candidate.
"The other one is on our right side and she's from Norway,'' Waite said of Julie Mikaelsen, a junior from Askim, Norway. "She's so much better than she was a year ago and I think she's going to be a big factor for us. She's one of our offensive leaders right now.''
Mikaelsen ranks fourth on the team in kills (2.57 per set) which may not seem like much until you revisit her narrative and consider how far she has literally come as a player, on and off the floor. Prior to this season, she had appeared in 50 matches, including 25 starts as a freshman.
"Her English has improved dramatically,'' Waite said. "If you were to speak to her, you would never know that she's Norwegian other than when she's talking about her homeland.''
One of Mikaelsen's coaches in Norway had previously coached professionally in the United States. One of his contacts had Wisconsin ties, which led to Waite recruiting Mikaelsen. "I went to watch her practice and play and I really liked her,'' Waite said.
Mikaelsen was originally a part of Wisconsin's 2009 recruiting class. But there were some questions about her NCAA eligibility. "She was here two days before our preseason camp, and we had to send her back for a year,'' Waite said. "I went and watched her again and she was more mature.''
During the 2009-10 season, Mikaelsen played for the University of Stavanger club team. Her international resume is fairly extensive through her participation with the Norwegian Junior National Team (2006-2010) and a summer stint with the Norwegian Senior National Team in 2011.
On top of all of that, she has been a good fit.
"She's a great teammate,'' Waite said.
That would seem to fall in line with the type of personality the Badgers have been cultivating.
"They're a pretty resilient group,'' Waite said. "We're pretty thin in the middle right now, so we just have Alexis Mitchell and Mary Ording. And they're just troopers; they're getting all the reps in practice. Mary is getting up to speed because it's not a position that she played much in the past.''
Mitchell , meanwhile, is a senior and proven Big Ten competitor.
"She isn't a big surprise, but she keeps getting better,'' Waite said. Who are the surprises then? "Deme Morales is in the back row and she's a phenomenal athlete with a great jump top-spin serve. Her ball control has come around a lot, and Annemarie Hickey continues to improve as a defensive player.''
The Badgers have won five of their first six matches; the only loss coming to Creighton. "We're pretty much where I thought we would be,'' Waite said. "You'd prefer to be undefeated. You never want to lose. But at times you have to be pushed by the best. They have to show you your weaknesses.''
Besides the resiliency that Waite has seen in some areas, he has also seen his players "getting tighter as a unit.'' That bodes well for the future and Waite's objective to get everyone to "believe that they can be one of the best teams in the conference.''
That takes time and patience.
"But when they do that -- believe -- they play at a very high level,'' he said, "and that's exciting to see. It's starting to form, but it's not quite there yet ... non-conference play is huge for us. We've talked to the team about that. They're working as hard as they can to get up to speed as fast as they can.
"We're seeing some good things, and I like that.''