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Wisconsin volleyball faces revamped Big Ten in bid for four-peat

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It was arguably the greatest accomplishment in University of Wisconsin volleyball program history at the time.

But the feat of winning three consecutive Big Ten Conference championships was overshadowed just three weeks later by the capturing of the first NCAA national title.

While nothing ever will dim the glow of that national championship, it would be hard to overstate the significance of putting together three consecutive teams that could prevail in the nation’s toughest conference, compiling a 50-5 record in the process.

UW is just the third school to win three titles in a row and the first since Penn State had its streak of eight straight from 2003-10. The Nittany Lions also had a streak of four titles from 1996-99. Illinois was the first to pull off the feat in the early days of full conference competition from 1986-88.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “It’s a big goal of ours every year to put ourselves in position to compete for a championship because you know if you’re able to do that you’ve really accomplished something.

“It’s really hard to go through a Big Ten season. It is 10 weeks when you are constantly challenged. It’s almost like every week you have a top 10 opponent that you’re playing. Just about every match is a team that’s capable of being an NCAA Tournament team. It’s a gauntlet.”

The No. 6 Badgers (6-2) begin that gauntlet Friday night against Northwestern (11-1), which is coming off a strong pre-conference season, before traveling to No. 8 Minnesota (5-3) in an early season showdown between habitual contenders.

Sheffield said he never talked to last season’s team about going for a third consecutive title, preferring to look at each season as a singular challenge.

“It was never discussed  let’s go get three in a row,” he said. “And now we don’t talk about let’s go get four in a row. This is what we’re trying to do right now this year. The conference rewards the team that is able to be good over and over and over again. If you take a week off, you’re going to go oh-for. That’s what this league does to you.”

It is that focus on the immediate task ahead that has been fundamental to the Badgers’ success, said middle blocker Danielle Hart, who is in her sixth season in the program, counting her redshirt year in 2017.

“Our team treats every match the same,” Hart said. “Our approach doesn’t change and we respect the team that’s in front of us and they have our full attention. We’ve always been a team that preaches that the train keeps on moving. When it comes to the Big Ten season, you have to be that way if you want to win. I think that’s a huge part of why we’ve been so successful because we respect every team in front of us.”

Although the top contenders for this season's Big Ten title figure to be much the same as in recent years, the conference will have a much different look with most teams experiencing considerable roster turnover. That’s largely a product of the extra season of eligibility that players received following the COVID-19 impacted 2020-21 season that extended the careers of a number of top players.

“Teams graduated a lot of long-time players, probably more all-conference, All-American type players than have ever been,” Sheffield said. “Then you’ve got some transfers that have come in for most teams.

“I haven’t watched a whole lot of other teams play. The little bit I’ve seen of teams, it seems like there are a lot of teams that are still trying to figure out roles and what the team is going to be, which is perfectly fine. It’s September. A lot of new talent has come in. The conference is really talented. It’s just trying to get that talent to work together for most of these teams.”

Nine of the 19 players on the All-Big Ten first team last year have graduated and two others transferred within the conference  Sarah Franklin from Michigan State to UW and senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord from Penn State to Nebraska.

Other notable intra-conference transfers include junior middle blocker Taylor Trammell from Purdue to Penn State; sophomore middle Arica Davis from Ohio State and graduate student middle Naya Gros from Michigan State to Minnesota; and grad student middle Hannah Clayton from Iowa to Purdue.

Among the impact freshmen are outside hitter Eva Hudson of Purdue, who leads the Big Ten with 4.85 kills per set, and Mckenna Wucherer of Minnesota, the top-ranked recruit from Brookfield Central who just moved into the lineup after being sidelined by a foot injury.

“I don't know that the teams will be as talented, player per player, as they were a year ago,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said at the Big Ten media days. “There were so many great individual players in this league a year ago. A lot of them were fifth-year players. And some of them are playing on the national team right now. So it was a great league a year ago.

“I think the competition will be as fierce, balanced top to bottom, at least 1 to 10. I don't know as there will be as much talent on the floor as there was a year ago.”

The Big Ten’s strength at the top is reflected in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, which currently has six Big Ten teams in the top 11, with three more teams ranked or receiving votes.

Big Ten teams posted a .729 nonconference winning percentage (105-39), the best of any conference, with Penn State (11-0) one of six undefeated teams in the nation.

“I think the Big Ten again is pretty fricking gnarly,” Hart said. “So it’s exciting to get in there and have awesome competition every night and continue to grow with this group. Playing such great competition sets us up for the tournament.

“We won three Big Ten championships in a row and we got to three Final Fours in a row. We’re trying to make it a four-peat.”

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