Nobody ever said the road to a Big Ten Conference championship would be a smooth one for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
Illinois made sure of that Friday night.
The No. 17 Fighting Illini had the No. 6 Badgers on the ropes, taking a 2-1 lead before the Badgers rallied to prevail 25-12, 18-25, 23-25, 25-21, 15-4 before a sellout crowd at the UW Field House.
“It was a gritty performance,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “That’s what it was at the end of the day. We were in attack mode right from the get-go and then they kind of turned the tables and really picked up their serving.
“They were passing really well in Game 2. They came out and hit a really high percentage (.342) in Game 2. In every set from then on we brought their hitting percentage down. We stayed in the fight.”
Junior Grace Loberg and redshirt junior Molly Haggerty led the attack for the Badgers (11-4, 7-0 Big Ten) with 14 kills apiece. Junior Dana Rettke had 12 kills, including the first two in the decisive fifth set, in which she also contributed a four-point service run that included an ace to get UW out to a 7-2 lead.
“It’s go-time then and I just wanted to put in good balls off Syd (Hilley) when she was setting me,” Rettke said. “Their middles were diving in all different directions, so it was keeping them off balance and just finding areas. They’re a really good defensive team. Serving-wise I just wanted to put in good ball after good ball and our defense really backed it up.”
After Rettke’s service run ended in the fifth, Loberg got two kills to spark a 4-0 spurt that gave the Badgers an insurmountable 11-3 lead. The first of those kills was a spectacular one from behind the 3-meter line that found an open space in the Illini backcourt.
“I saw Syd get taken all the way to the sideline,” Loberg said, “and I was like, oh gosh, just big approach, get your feet to the ball and I was trying to swing hard. I didn’t want to hit a roll shot because I wanted to get them out of system.”
The Badgers might never have gotten to that fifth set if not for a strong finish in the fourth. After leading by as many as five points midway through the set, the Badgers saw the Illini battle back to tie it at 16. UW was up just 20-18 when freshman Izzy Ashburn’s serve was ruled long.
But at the urging of the crowd, in particular the team’s parent section that was in line with the back line, Sheffield asked for a video review and the call was reversed, turning a one-point lead into a three-point advantage.
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“I think it’s the parents’ section telling us to challenge,” Sheffield said of the turning point. “That was an awfully big point over there. So that was about all we talked about down in the locker room, was that the MVP of the match was the parents’ section. They came ready to ball tonight.”
Illinois (9-7, 4-3) was led by senior Jacqueline Quade with 20 kills, while junior Megan Cooney had 14. But each also had 11 of the Illini’s 31 total hitting errors.
The Badgers only had 12 hitting errors on 145 swings.
“I’m awfully proud of the way our team battled,” Sheffield said. “You look at the stat sheet and you realize how clean of a match we played.
“When you’re rewarded at the back end of it, when you’re down and you come back and find a way to win against what we think is an elite team … we grew tonight.”
Illinois 12 24 25 21 4
Wisconsin 25 18 23 15 15
ILLINOIS (kills-digs-blocks) — Collins 9-1-1, Kuper 0-8-0, Bruder 0-0-0, Brown 2-16-1, Quade 20-8-3, Fleming 9-2-3, Allison 8-4-0, Cooney 14-2-0, O’Brien 0-25-0, Welsh 0-7-0. Totals 62-73-5.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-14-0, Hilley 0-14-2, Ashburn 0-8-0, Duello 5-3-5, Rettke 12-2-3, Clark 0-9-0, Hart 8-1-11, Dodge 0-9-0, Loberg 14-5-4, Haggerty 14-1-2. Totals 53-66-14.5.
Hitting percentage — I .186, W .283. Aces — I 3 (Kuper, Fleming, O’Brien), W 8 (Barnes 3). Assists — I 56 (Brown 47), W 50 (Hilley 44). Att. — 7,052.