The University of Wisconsin volleyball team’s growth process accelerated a bit Sunday.
The No. 5 Badgers were knocked on their heels a little with a first-set loss to host Illinois, but they responded to pull out a four-set victory over the Fighting Illini at Huff Hall in Champaign.
Freshman Julia Orzol had 16 kills to help lead a balanced UW attack in the 22-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-17 victory.
But the match got off to something of an ominous start as the Illini, coming off a big upset win Friday at No. 4 Purdue, overcame a 19-15 UW lead to win the first set.
That was just the kind of challenge UW coach Kelly Sheffield figured his team would face at some point against the Illini, the No. 2 team in the nation in service aces. And Sheffield was excited about what he saw.
“I’m pretty fired up right now because I learned something about my team today, just digging in deeper,” Sheffield said in his post-match radio interview. “We talked about this going into the match that this was going to be one of those matches where we were going to see how mentally tough we were.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids coming in here and this is a hard place to play, mainly because of how they serve and how they defend, especially their block. And it got to us early on. But we kind of dug in there, stayed with it.”
Sheffield credited fifth-year outside hitter Grace Loberg with helping the team settle down and make the necessary adjustments the rest of the way. Loberg finished with season-high 12 kills with just one error, hitting .344.
“That was one of Grace’s best matches of her career,” Sheffield said. “There was a calmness about her that was needed. She went in there and started hitting some shots, a lot of high hands in the middle of the match, sending a lot of balls deep, hitting a couple different shots that got them out of their defense. I thought Grace, her overall game was really good.”
Loberg credited setter Sydney Hilley with putting her and the other hitters in good positions.
“Sydney was putting up great balls that were giving us a lot of opportunity to see the court and see where the defenders were,” Loberg said. “As a team we spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the defenders are defending us and to hit different shots each time.”
The Badgers (11-1, 3-1 Big Ten) hit .289 for the match, improving their percentage each set from .158 in the first to .486 in the fourth.
In addition to the 28 kills from the outsides, they got 24 kills from the middles with Devyn Robinson matching her season best with 14 and Dana Rettke adding 10.
The Illini (11-4, 3-1) were led by Megan Cooney with 13 kills, Jessica Nunge with 11 and Raina Terry 10. After hitting .306 in the first set, Illinois hit just .160 over the last three.
Sheffield again praised the defensive play of libero Lauren Barnes, who followed up a 23-dig performance in three sets Friday against Minnesota with 26 digs against the Illini.
“Barnes was fighting and keeping the ball off the ground,” Sheffield said. “I thought she was special defensively.”
Sheffield also was pleased with the play of Orzol, who produced a total of 33 kills in the weekend matches, as well freshman Lauren Jardine, who put up six kills after subbing in for Jade Demps on the right side midway through the second set.“That’s maturity,” he said of Orzol. “That’s the growth of what’s happened with her.“Jardine came in and did some nice things. I really like the tandem of her and Demps because they’re just so different players. She kind of gave us a little bit different gear, a different area that she prefers to attack in.”Those kind of performances made the match all the more rewarding for the Badgers, who again were without injured defensive specialist Giorgia Civita and freshman middle blocker Anna Smrek.“I was so excited about going into today’s match and really excited in the middle of the match to see how we were going to respond,” Sheffield said. “That was a fun locker room afterwards because as you’re watching the match you’re saying, all right, the team is growing a little bit as the match was going on. That’s really a fun place to be.”
Wisconsin 22 25 25 25
Illinois 25 20 20 17
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-26-0, Hilley 4-10-1, MacDonald 0-1-0, Boyer 1-8-0, Robinson 14-1-3, Ashburn 0-8-0, Demps 2-0-0, Jardine 6-0-1, Rettke 10-0-2, Loberg 12-8-3, Orzol 16-4-0. Totals 65-66-7.
ILLINOIS (kills-digs-blocks) — Cooney 13-13-1, Nunge 11-8-2, Terry 10-8-3, Collins 7-2-6, Swanson 5-0-3, Brown 2-3-3, Kuper 0-11-0, Bruder 0-1-0, Barnes 0-4-0. Totals 48-50-11.
Hitting percentage — W .289, I .197. Aces — W 4 (Ashburn 3), I 5 (Bruder, Nunge 2). Assists — W 58 (Hilley 54), I 43 (Brown 41). Att. — 2,513.