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Catching Up with Big Ten Volleyball

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A sport we can actually be proud of.

Yes, Dana Rettke is still there, and yes, she is still a terrifying super threat.
uwbadgers.com

Welcome, basketball fans! As the Big Ten flamed out of the NCAA basketball tournament in spectacular fashion during the opening rounds, perhaps you’re in search of an entertaining sport filled with dominant athletes who also represent your favorite schools! Well, you’re in luck - while you’d normally be left to your own devices to mourn the early exit of your favorite team, thanks to Covid, the Big Ten’s best sport is competing right now!

Let’s check out what’s going on in volleyball land, shall we?

Ch-ch-ch-changes

As you may remember, the Big Ten pushed its season back to spring, focused on a conference-only season, with the goal of a condensed 48-team tournament meeting in mid-April in Omaha. Most teams are playing Friday night and Saturday night against the same team in a bid to minimize exposure and travel, with some aberrations for teams that are geographically closer (for example, last week Nebraska and Iowa met on Wednesday night and Saturday night).

Wisconsin Remains #1... by Default

Wisconsin remains at the top of the AVCA rankings with an impressive undefeated record... but there’s a catch. The Badgers haven’t played since a Feb. 21st match against Michigan State. Like their football team, they ran scared at the prospect of playing Nebraska, and didn’t see the court again until this weekend. (Relax Badgers, that was a joke.) The Badgers fell to that old nemesis of all, Covid, and missed their series with Nebraska, and saw the postponement of their first game with Minnesota. Otherwise, this didn’t hurt them too much in terms of avoiding the cream of the Big Ten, bowing out of matches against Iowa and Northwestern.

In their first match back on Sunday night (playing a half-series with Minnesota), the Badgers still appeared dominant, especially in the first set, which they won 25-14. Minnesota bounced back to take the second, but another blow out in the third and a close win in the fourth showed that Wisconsin is still the team to beat.

And The Rest

The Big Ten is still well-represented in the national rankings, though as our basketball teams could tell us, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything come tourney time, hahaha. Three Big Ten teams retain their spots in the Top Five: #1 Wisconsin, #4 Minnesota, and #5 Nebraska. Ohio State, Purdue, and Penn State occupy spots #9-11, respectively.

What this shows is that the top of Big Ten is as tough as ever, and even with a condensed tournament field, the Big Ten is likely to have a good showing of teams. However, it does appear that some of the decent middle-tier teams in the conference have faded this season, most notably those from the state of Michigan. Typically, the Big Ten will also have a team or two hanging out in the #20-25 spaces, or at least receiving votes, and that hasn’t happened this season.

Ohio State is For Real

The biggest surprise of this season has been OSU’s surprising undefeated run, which finally came to a halt when they faced Nebraska (though they swept Penn State in their two matches prior to that.) OSU has never been a bottom-feeder, but they’ve also never really rose into the top half of the conference - to be fair, this is a tough conference in which to make that kind of headway. But the Buckeyes have done it - and if you’ve watched them, it does not appear to be a fluke. The first time I watched them was in their battle with the Huskers on March 12/13. OSU brought all the Huskers could handle (and actually, more). The first match went five sets after OSU won the first two sets, and the next night, fans were treated to another five set match, though this time the Buckeyes appeared victorious.

The key to Buckeye success is a maddeningly effective defensive effort, as well as a truly outstanding setter, Mac Podraza, who, tragically for the rest of the conference, is only a sophomore. They’ve also developed stamina - eight of their matches (that’s 50% to date) have gone for five sets, and they’ve only lost one of those. It’s an underrated bit of experience to have the grit to prevail in those long matches, and likely will serve OSU well in the tournament.

The most surprising part of all of this? This is all happening with a first-year coach. Jen Flynn Oldenburg, formerly a four-year player for the Buckeyes, has made a strong impression in her first season (to put it mildly). My mom admires her for eschewing the weirdly formal dress code that sees many female coaches pacing the sidelines in heels, and instead wearing what appear to be semi-dressy sweatpants on the sidelines. She hasn’t spent as much time in the college coaching ranks as most top coaches, spending most of the past decade with the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association and USA Volleyball Girls Youth National Team. But so far, she hasn’t missed a beat.

This is perhaps the most intriguing storyline in the conference this year, and it will be interesting to see if OSU can install itself in the Big Ten’s top tier moving forward. (Note: Their matches against Minnesota were postponed, and they did not have Wisconsin on the schedule.)

Last Week’s Results

Wednesday, March 17

Nebraska (3) @ Iowa (0)

Iowa had no answer for the Huskers, particularly in the third set, in which Nebraska crushed the Hawkeyes 25-11.

Thursday, March 18

Minnesota @ Wisconsin: postponed

Friday, March 19

Purdue (3) @ Rutgers (1)

While Rutgers didn’t truly threaten to win this match, the fact that they are taking sets against ranked opponents on a somewhat regular basis this season attests to considerable improvement from what was once a squad so putrid, it was unfair to putrid things to use that adjective for Rutgers volleyball.

Penn State (3) @ Michigan State (0)

Michigan (1) @ Ohio State (3)

Maryland (1) @ Illinois (3)

Saturday, March 20

Northwestern @ Indiana: postponed

Purdue (3) @ Rutgers (0)

Penn State (3) @ Michigan State (0)

MSU is having a rough season, currently sitting at 2-9, and with only four set wins in those nine losses. They have a veteran coach in Cathy George, and a reasonably balanced team in terms of experience, but for whatever reason, things aren’t coming together for the Spartans this season. (It may be as simple as the fact that they’ve already played Minnesota, Wisconsin, OSU, and PSU—those are tough outs for anyone.) However, they’re off to Iowa this weekend, and if not gimmes, those are at least good opportunities for MSU to right the ship.

Michigan (0) @ Ohio State (3)

Maryland (2) @ Illinois (3)

I didn’t see this one, but wish I had. It was a back-and-forth, close affair. It looks like it was exciting volleyball! (25-27, 25-12 (Illinois, wut), 22-25, 26-24, 9-15)

Iowa (0) @ Nebraska (3)

Easy, breezy, beautiful.

Sunday, March 21

Northwestern @ Indiana: postponed

Wisconsin (3) @ Minnesota (1)

I only watched the first set of this one, and then switched over to Outlander (sorry, Scots > Sconnies), but suffice to say that Wisconsin did not look rusty at all. Minnesota did get their bearings back, winning the second and giving them a tough go in the fourth, but anyone hoping to catch the Badgers off their game and rusty (cough, Penn State) appears to be headed for disappointment on that score.

This Week’s Matches

If you plan this right, you can watch Big Ten volleyball five nights in a row and forget that basketball ever existed. The perks of a spring season!

Wednesday, March 24

Rutgers @ Maryland, 7 pm ET - Big Ten Network

If you’d like to see Rutgers’ improvement for yourself, this is probably your chance.

Thursday, March 25

Nebraska #5 @ Michigan, 8 pm ET - Big Ten Network

Some rare Thursday night volleyball action for you!

Friday, March 26

A triple-header on BTN! THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Purdue #10 @ Ohio State #9, 2 pm ET for some reason - not televised (too bad, because this one could be interesting)

Minnesota #4 @ Northwestern, 5 pm ET - BTN (sure)

Nebraska #5 @ Michigan, 7 pm ET - BTN

Michigan State @ Iowa, 7 pm ET

Indiana @ Illinois, 8 pm ET

Wisconsin #1 @ Penn State #11, 9 pm ET - BTN

I’m not totally sure why Minnesota got the first BTN game of the evening (except that it probably has better viewership than Purdue or OSU), but you could have an evening of some quality volleyball.

Saturday, March 27

You can watch three games today too, though it will involve some network switching.

Purdue #10 @ Ohio State #9, 2 pm ET - ESPNU (here’s your chance to watch this pairing)

Maryland @ Rutgers, 4 pm ET

Wisconsin #1 @ Penn State #11, 7 pm ET - BTN

Minnesota #4 @ Northwestern, 7 pm ET

Michigan State @ Iowa, 7 pm ET

Indiana @ Illinois, 9 pm ET - BTN

************************************

There you have it! A stellar five days of volleyball, the best Big Ten sport. It’s the perfect time to give it a try if you haven’t before!

Poll

Volleyball in the spring is...

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Not too bad, actually!
    (62 votes)
  • 21%
    Super weird
    (17 votes)
79 votes total Vote Now