Oct. 22, 2013
MADISON, Wis. -- Not even halfway through the Big Ten Conference season and questions are already coming to the 16th-ranked Wisconsin volleyball about the NCAA tournament. But for first-year coach Kelly Sheffield, his main concern is the next opponent.
“We've got a long way to go before we start talking about that,” said Sheffield at a news conference on Monday when asked about post-season play. “That's obviously a goal (but) we don't want to be a team that just gets in. We want to be a team that's competing for championships and titles. We're putting our emphasis on that and just a daily process of getting better right now.”
In the Big Ten, teams can’t look too far ahead, including the Badgers (16-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten) who play their sixth-straight top-25 ranked team on Wednesday when No. 7 Minnesota (18-3, 6-2) comes to the UW Field House. First serve is at 7 p.m.
“We've got a really quick turnaround,” Sheffield said after this team’s win over No. 5 Michigan State on Sunday. “We've got another top-10 opponent on Wednesday, against a really, really good and physical Minnesota team.
“Their outsides are about as good as anybody in the conference. They've got a player of the year candidate in the middle. We've got to try to figure out a way to slow her down a little bit and then a couple of freshmen that have come in and really done a nice job.”
The Golden Gophers are currently tied for second in the incredibly tough Big Ten standings. They are led by senior middle blocker Tori Dixon, who ranks third in the conference in hitting percentage (.418), third in blocks per set (1.43) and fifth in kills per set (3.89).
The Badger defense will need to stop Dixon as well as outside hitters Ashley Wittman and Daley Santana, who average 3.20 and 2.85 kills per set, respectively. Wisconsin will also have to play smart on offense as Minnesota leads the Big Ten in blocks per set as a team.
“The Big Ten is awesome if you just enjoy competition because it comes at you from all sides,” said Sheffield. “That's what this conference is. … you're going to have some tough matches you've got to be able to rebound from. You're going to have some great wins, and you've got to feel good about those when they come, and you've got to be able to move on to the next one regardless quickly.”
Wisconsin did just that last weekend. After getting swept by No. 16 Michigan on Friday night, the Badgers bounced back to down No. 5 Michigan State on Sunday. Senior Annemarie Hickey keyed a defensive battle and was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for her efforts.
“Annemarie Hickey was absolutely fantastic defensively the whole match,” Sheffield said. “I thought Lauren Carlini did a really good job of executing the game plan. Ellen Chapman probably played one of her most complete games of the year, certainly put a lot of pressure on them from behind the serving line.”
With five Big Ten wins, Wisconsin has already tied its number of conference wins from last season when it was 5-15 and finished tied for ninth. UW also needs only one more win to equal its overall win total from 2012 when it was 17-15.
With the improvement of this year’s team, it’s not surprising that there is already talk about the NCAA tournament after a five-year absence.
“I don't hear talk about the NCAA tournament,” said Sheffield. “I hear talk, and it's not just from our players, it's from our coaches. We're all being very conscious of it, (about) what is in front of us.
“I think (the players) are hungrier now than what they were probably a month or two ago because I think they're starting to believe.
“I think our kids have done a really, really good job of being a part of -- they're taking ownership. I don't see any resting on anything from this group.”