CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Wisconsin volleyball team is one step away from a trip to the NCAA final four. But that last step figures to be a doozy.
The sixth-seeded Badgers advanced to the Elite Eight with a dominating performance in sweeping San Diego 25-13, 25-16, 25-10 Friday at Huff Hall.
Their reward is another match against Big Ten Conference rival Illinois, the No. 3 seed, which moved on with an equally convincing sweep of Marquette in the first semifinal match Friday.
Round 3 for the Badgers and Illini comes Saturday at 3 p.m., with the teams having split their two conference meetings, each team winning on the road.
It is the matchup fans of both teams have been anticipating ever since the tournament bracket was announced, while the coaches and players from each side were consumed with the matches they needed to win to get to this point.
“We’ve done zero talk with our team about Illinois,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “The fans should have a lot of fun. These are two teams that are playing their best volleyball of the year and that’s certainly what you want.
“It’s how you manage the moment. You can’t make it any bigger than what it is. But in the back of your mind you’re going, man, this is for a trip to the final four. Every player is going to realize that, but at the end of the day it’s about playing good volleyball for long stretches of time.”
The Badgers (25-6) may have done just that against San Diego (18-13), as they dominated both sides of the net.
Offensively, the Badgers hit a season-high .515 for the match, with 38 kills and just four hitting errors. On the defensive side, they had a 15-2 edge in blocks and held the Toreros to a season-low .045 hitting percentage.
Sophomore Dana Rettke led a balanced attack with nine kills and hit .692. Senior Tionna Williams (.462) and redshirt sophomore Molly Haggerty each had eight kills and sophomore Grace Loberg (.600) added seven.
Sophomore setter Sydney Hilley credited the team’s aggressive serving with setting things up for the offense. The Badgers had seven service aces, including five in the first set, and they had San Diego out of system for much of the match.
“I think that was such a high number because of the way we served,” Hilley said. “We got them out of system, which made my job a lot easier. I have so much trust in all my hitters so it makes my job a lot easier when our offense can be really balanced.”
The effective serving also helped set up the Badgers’ blocking dominance, said Williams, who recorded a season-high 10 blocks.
“Serving and getting them out of system makes it easy for the blockers to read,” Williams said. “It gets us in a good position to get our hands over the net and get a touch on the ball. It’s all serving.”
The Badgers’ size at the net, particularly the presence of the 6-foot-8 Rettke, also was significant, according to the San Diego players.
“Their height, their bigness kind of got to us,” said 6-2 senior middle blocker Kaity Edwards. “We haven’t really had the practice of hitting against a 6-foot-8 girl, or anybody 6-foot-8 for that matter.”
Senior Addie Picha, a 6-2 middle blocker, said that size advantage also carried over to the offensive side.
“Obviously, they’re a very, very good team,” Picha said. “The main issue was they’re just big and it took us a while to adjust to how big their block is. And they were hitting over us too, so it also took awhile for our block and our defense to adjust to how big they are and how they were playing.”
The Toreros’ challenge was made even more difficult when they lost their starting libero Kelli Barry, the team leader in digs, to an injury in practice Thursday. And then one of their top attackers, senior outside hitter Lauren Fuller, had to be carried off the court in the third set after suffering a serious knee injury.
After the match all of the UW players and Sheffield went over to console Fuller, who played at the same volleyball club, Sports Performance, as UW’s Tiffany Clark and Haggerty.
“I thought it was extremely moving, thoughtful, great sportsmanship from the Wisconsin team,” San Diego coach Jennifer Petrie said. “They all came over and wished her well and congratulated her on a great career. I thought that was fantastic.”
Petrie anticipates that the UW-Illinois match will be fantastic, as well.
“I know these teams have battled a lot this year already and it’s going to be a heated match,” she said. “It just gets tougher and tougher every round.”
The first two meetings took place within a span of 11 days in October. The Badgers won in four sets at Huff Hall, rebounding after losing the first set behind 23 kills from Rettke.
The Illini got even in a four-set match at the UW Field House, with the turning point being a 35-33 win in the third set.
The familiarity between the two teams makes for slightly easier preparation in the short turnaround between matches, Sheffield said. But he added that both teams have progressed in the two months since they last faced each other.
“We certainly like where we’re at right now,” Sheffield said. “We’re playing as good as we have this year and there’s not a question in my mind about that.
“Illinois has been at that point for a little bit longer. They’ve been playing really clean, really good volleyball for quite a while now. I’m sure the place will be packed in here and it should be a fun regional final.”
San Diego 13 16 10
Wisconsin 25 25 25
SAN DIEGO (kills-digs-blocks) — Newsome 0-4-0, Picha 5-0-2, Wiblin 4-2-1, Jacobsen 1-0-0, Fuller 4-1-1, Lukes 7-2-0, Douglass 0-2-0, Benbow 0-4-0, Madill 0-4-0, Patrick 1-0-0, May 2-0-0, Edwards 2-0-0, Priest 0-0-0, Fayad 2-1-0. Totals 28-20-2.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Hilley 2-1-1, Williams 8-0-10, Duello 4-3-4, Rettke 9-5-5, Loberg 7-8-4, Haggerty 8-1-1, Clark 0-6-0, Dodd 0-0-0, Hart 0-0-2, Dodge 0-2-0. Totals 38-26-15.
Hitting percentage — SD .045, W .515. Aces — SD 3 (Madill 2), W 7 (Duello, Loberg 2). Assists — SD 26 (Newsome 16), W 37 (Hilley 34). Att. – 3,341.
Illinois 3, Marquette 0
Junior Jacqueline Quade had 12 kills to lead the Illini (31-3) to a 25-19, 25-21, 25-16 sweep of the Golden Eagles.
Junior Allie Barber led Marquette (28-7) with 14 kills.