There are two ways that you can look at the next two days for Marquette volleyball.
There’s the pessimist’s view, which says that Marquette has lost every single match that they’ve played against a ranked opponent this season, including each of the last four, Wednesday’s match is yet another one of those and is arguably the toughest one of all and will probably just be another loss, and man if that doesn’t make Thursday’s contest a Must Win Match for the Golden Eagles.
There’s the optimist’s view, which says that Marquette is on the verge of selling out Fiserv Forum for women’s volleyball, and that’s a tribute to the program building that head coach Ryan Theis has done over the last several years. While the season might not be going the way anyone wanted it to go or hoped it to go, Wednesday night provides the Golden Eagles their biggest opportunity of the season, and not just that, but gives them that shot on national television to boot.
You can pick whichever side of the coin you want to look at for the 2-5 Golden Eagles.
I choose the optimist’s view. I choose to believe that Fiserv is going to be mostly people cheering for the Golden Eagles on Wednesday night. I choose to believe that setting an NCAA Division 1 indoor regular season attendance record — if everyone with a ticket shows up, they will — is a big damn deal that everyone at 770 N. 12th Street should be proud of. I choose to believe that Ryan Theis and his team knows exactly what they signed up for with this schedule, and they’re not afraid of anyone, not even an undefeated and #1 ranked team.
I choose to believe that this is a good volleyball team that’s been catching the business end of a coin flip against a bunch of other good volleyball teams this season. It’s come up tails five times on them. Maybe, just maybe, with 17,000-ish people looking on, it comes up heads.
Match #8: vs #1 Wisconsin Badgers (7-0)
Date: Wednesday, September 13, 2023
Time: 7pm Central
Location: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Television: FS1, with Bob Brainerd and Anna Connelly calling the action
Streaming: FoxSports.com/live or the Fox Sports app
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB
Marquette is 2-22 all time against Wisconsin Badgers and 1-16 since Marquette made the move to Division 1 volleyball. The Marquette win came in 2019 with both teams ranked in the top 15.
Wisconsin started the year earning first place votes in the AVCA top 25 poll, but ranked #2 behind Texas. When the Badgers beat #15 Baylor along with TCU in the opening weekend of the season but the Longhorns lost to Long Beach State, that pushed UW up to the top spot in the poll, and they’ve been there ever since. That’s the rule of polls: You can’t stop being #1 if you don’t lose. The other spots can shift around maybe, but if you’re #1 and you’ve got a zero in your loss column since you got there, you get to stay there.
It’s not like the Badgers have been slacking off, either. They went down to Arkansas and beat the then-#21 ranked Razorbacks twice in Fayetteville. They hosted then-#24 Tennessee, the same Vols team that just beat Marquette, and defeated them in five sets after UT won sets #3 and #4. They also have sweep victories over Arizona and Miami, which at the very least won’t be a drag on UW’s RPI when it comes to tournament selection time.
Wisconsin’s offense is chugging right along, as the Badgers hit .324 as a team. Sarah Franklin leads the way for them with just under four kills per set. Devyn Robinson is at 3.31/frame and puts down kills at a .390 clip, which makes her a more than quality secondary option to Franklin. Temi Thomas-Ailara and Anna Smrek both average north of two kills per set, so they can go in a lot of directions if they need to do that. Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill are in charge of the decisions on those directions, as they average 6.35 and 4.88 assists per set, and both women have played in every single set so far this season with Ashburn getting the nod as the starting setter.
Julia Orzol is your primary woman of note on defense, averaging 3.08 digs per set. If you combine Ashburn and Hammill into one person — they’re splitting time for head coach Kelly Sheffield, after all — they’re averaging 4.57 digs/frame, which is an awful lot from your setter, especially when your setter combination is also averaging over 11 assists/set. Marquette’s hitters are going to have their hands full with Carter Booth and CC Crawford. Both women are averaging over 1.10 blocks per set, and those are just the balls that they put down for points. Booth is the more obviously dangerous shot blocker because that’s a thing that’s obviously true when you stand 6’7”. I’m going to mention Anna Smrek averaging 0.88 block/set, which isn’t knock your socks off stuff, but she’s 6’9” and it’s only a matter of time before she runs wild with blocks on someone after averaging 1.11/set last season.
Match #9: at Milwaukee Panthers (5-5)
Marquette is, somehow, 34-46-1 all time against Milwaukee. The series dates all the way back to 1975, the first ever year of competitive volleyball at Marquette. 41 of those 80 matches happened before Marquette made the move to Division 1 in 1986, and since then the series stands at 21-16 in MU’s favor. Marquette has won the last 12 meetings with UWM’s most recent victory coming back in 2007, and the Golden Eagles have won the last seven encounters all by way of a 3-0 sweep dating back to 2012. This is the second straight year that they’ve played after not scheduling a match since 2017.
I’m not going to try and convince you that Milwaukee poses as much of a threat to Marquette as Wisconsin does, but I am going to point out that the Panthers have won five of their last six matches. Yes, that means they started out the year at 0-4, and yes, it does mean that they’re coming off a 3-1 road loss to SIU-Edwardsville. What I will say is that 1) this match finally breaks Marquette’s run of contests against ranked opponents after five straight and 2) there’s still a match against a top 10 foe coming over the weekend. Whatever happens on Wednesday night, Marquette’s postseason hopes depend on the Golden Eagles not overlooking this match.
Ari Miller is going to be a problem for Marquette. The 6’1” middle blocker is Milwaukee’s attacking leader, garnering 3.23 kills per set while hitting a very impressive .385. She is not the Panthers’ leader in attacks this season, nor is she even second. Those two spots go to Natalie Schmitz, who averages 3.13 kills, and Madi Malone, who is at 2.64 per frame. The catch here is that, as you may have guessed, Schmitz is hitting just .195 and Malone is at .214. If Marquette can induce the Panthers to keep the balls going to those two, that’s going to be a good thing. If Milwaukee starts leaning on Miller, that might not be so good.
Josie Johnson and Kaley Blake are splitting time at setter with Johnson getting the starting lineup nod. She’s averaging 5.92 assists while Blake is at 4.79. That’s a pretty even split, so we’ll have to see if the Panthers play a little bit better with one or the other.
Sarah Schrader cleans things up in the back for Milwaukee, averaging nearly twice as many digs as anyone else at 4.39 per set. Ari Miller gets herself some bonus points by leading the team in blocks at just over one per set, and fellow middle blocker Lakyn Graves isn’t too shabby either at 0.87.