The University of Wisconsin volleyball team set the bar pretty high with its stated goal of having the best defense in the nation this season.
It’s an ambition the Badgers fell far short of achieving through much of the early going.
While they still have a ways to go, they demonstrated Sunday that such aspirations are not unrealistic as the No. 13 Badgers defeated Indiana 25-21, 20-25, 25-17, 25-15 at the UW Field House.
The Badgers (6-4, 2-0 Big Ten) entered the week a distant last in the conference in opponents’ hitting percentage (.255). But they opened the Big Ten schedule by holding Purdue and Indiana to a combined .127 attack percentage.
UW held Indiana to a .146 mark for the match, but just .058 in the last two sets.
“One of the things we’ve been working on a lot in the gym is our defense,” coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I thought we did a lot of really good things defensively. I thought our defense got stronger as the match went on. We were making defensive adjustments really well. I loved our effort.”
He likened the defensive effort to that of the UW football team’s performance the day before in its 24-15 victory over Northwestern.
“It felt a little like what I’m sure it felt like in that football game,” he said. “It was tough moving the ball down the field but the defense was really stout and made plays. I thought that we did the same thing.”
Leading the defensive effort was senior libero Tiffany Clark, who recorded a season-high 23 digs. But she had plenty of help from backcourt mates Lauren Barnes, M.E. Dodge, Sydney Hilley and Izzy Ashburn as the Badgers put up a season-high 84 digs.
“Across the board I thought our backcourt was probably the best we’ve been this year,” Sheffield said. “I thought we were awfully good fighting to keep balls off the ground. We were doing that all match but I thought as the match went on we were controlling the balls a little bit better.”
That’s a trend that Clark expects to continue the rest of the season.
“I think we’re always getting better,” Clark said. “We knew how our defensive play was early in the season. That wasn’t us, that wasn’t Badger volleyball.
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“I think now we’re getting better and we know that when we defend well, we win. I think that’s one thing that will set us apart from the rest of the Big Ten, how good we are on defense. We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be at the end of the season, I promise you that.”
The Badgers got off to a flying start, racing out to an 8-0 lead in the first set. But the Hoosiers (11-4, 0-2) demonstrated some scrappy defense of their own, closing to within 19-18 before the Badgers went on a 5-0 run to regain control.
In the second set, Indiana took advantage of 10 UW hitting errors to even the match.
“There were so many points we gave away in the second, a lot of attack errors,” Sheffield said. “We just were not very clean.”
But they cleaned things up the rest of the way, dominating the last two sets.
Offensively, the Badgers got big matches from both of their outside hitters. Molly Haggerty led the way with a season-high 20 kills, hitting .327, and fellow junior Grace Loberg added 14 kills (.324). Junior middle blocker Dana Rettke chipped in with 16 kills.
“I thought Grace came out of the gates offensively pretty well and then slowed down in the middle and picked it back up,” Sheffield said. “I thought both of them got stronger as the match went on. We’ve had our middles and rights carrying us offensively for so much and our lefts kind of grabbed the bull by the horns and carried us offensively today.”
Haggerty said she knew she’d have to use her full array of shots against Indiana’s defense.
“I definitely felt like I was in a rhythm,” Haggerty said. “That was a hard team to score against offensively and I knew that just hitting one shot wasn’t going to do it.”
Indiana 21 25 17 15
Wisconsin 25 20 25 25
INDIANA (kills-digs-blocks) — Brisack 1-8-0, Huybers 5-0-3, Zumach 0-0-0, Koors 0-3-0, Edwards 6-13-4, Armer 4-0-6, Armstrong 0-12-0, Sloan 6-2-1, Lofton 4-3-4, Beerman 11-4-1, Fitzner 0-8-0, Malloy 4-8-0. Totals 41-64-10.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-14-0, Hilley 1-14-2, Ashburn 0-11-0, Duello 4-0-2, Rettke 16-4-2, Clark 0-23-0, Hart 3-3-5, Dodge 0-7-0, Loberg 15-1-0, Haggerty 20-7-2. Totals 59-84-7.
Hitting percentage — IU .146, W .222. Aces — IU 3 (Brisack, Armstrong, Lofton), W 11 (Ashburn 5). Assists — IU 39 (Brisack 14), W 56 (Hilley 46). Att. — 7,052.