No word yet if Cole Hamels has officially certified it, but from all outward appearances the University of Wisconsin and Marquette volleyball series would seem to have the makings of a growing rivalry.
A friendly one, but a rivalry nonetheless.
Hamels, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, recently stirred up something of a tempest when he pooh-poohed the notion that the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers had a rivalry because Brewers fans allowed Cubs fans to storm Miller Park and create a home-field advantage for the neighbors to the south.
Apparently, a Marquette booster has bought into that line of thought by buying up all the available seats in the lower bowl at the Al McGuire Center in an effort to prevent a red wave of Badgers fans from taking over for Friday night’s match between the No. 6 Badgers and the No. 21 Golden Eagles.
“That’s awesome,” said UW coach Kelly Sheffield, who learned of the gambit Tuesday. “I love it. I hope Badgers fans can find a way to get there.”
Marquette coach Ryan Theis was reluctant to go into details but did confirm that an effort had been made to maintain an edge on the Golden Eagles’ home court.
“We do have some fans that are working very hard to give our players a very good home experience,” Theis said. “We knew there would be an infiltration of Wisconsin fans. They travel well and there’s a lot of them. There’s probably some Badger fans in Milwaukee that travel and watch Wisconsin home games, so we expect there will be some red in the building.”
Whether they’re wearing red or blue there will be the largest crowd in attendance for a Marquette volleyball match since 2009, with a virtual sellout of around 3,700 anticipated.
Theis is hoping the match can be a catalyst for expanding interest in his program.
“I think volleyball is a terrific product that is unknown to very large parts of the population,” said Theis, noting that the match is being actively marketed to MU students. “I think this Wisconsin game has tapped into a large number of our basketball fans that will be coming for the first time. Hopefully, they’ll want to come back.”
Theis, a Middleton native, has helped feed that interest by building the Golden Eagles (7-2) into a nationally competitive program. Theis, in his fifth season, has a 100-43 record and has led the team to the NCAA tournament each of his first four seasons, extending the school’s streak to seven appearances.
Marquette defeated No. 10 Southern Cal on Friday and then lost to now-No. 1 BYU on Saturday in four sets before a crowd of 1,491. Its other loss was to Baylor, the team that last week dealt the Badgers (5-1) their only loss.
The Badgers, who have never lost to the Golden Eagles (19-0), defeated them twice last season. UW won a tough four-set match at the Field House during the regular season and then swept Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Ames, Iowa.
M.E. Dodge, a junior defensive specialist from East Troy, is the only in-state player in the regular rotation for the Badgers. She suspects those matches will only help fuel the Golden Eagles’ emotions.
“My guess is that they’re probably out for blood,” said Dodge, who was recruited by Marquette. “That’s a good thing. We want to have great competition and we’re out for blood, too. I think it’s going to be a really intense match.
“I think it’s great that we have these great programs in the state and we battle it out. They’re playing pretty well right now and just with the history we’ve had recently I think it can turn into a rivalry, for sure.”
Oddly, before last season the two teams had met just once since 1999, that coming in 2008. Both coaches said they’re working on their schedules to keep the series going next year.
Sheffield sees a good model for the series in the rivalry between Nebraska and Creighton. Those Big Ten and Big East rivals, separated by just 50 miles, set an NCAA regular-season attendance record of 14,022 for their match last week in Omaha.
“What I see out of our two teams is very similar to what I see out of Nebraska and Creighton,” Sheffield said. “It’s two really elite programs that are right down the road from each other that have followings that are big and growing. It should be an incredible volleyball match.”