The college volleyball season is underway in Madison, and the No. 1 ranked Wisconsin Badgers hope to pick up where they left off in 2023.
With head coach Kelly Sheffield, Badgers volleyball has made five straight Elite 8 appearances including a national championship in 2021. Wisconsin lost a heartbreaker to Pitt last year, ending their season in the Elite 8, but returns most of the talent from that 28-4 squad.
Booth is a 6-7 sophomore middle blocker out of Minnesota, who the Badgers hope can replace Danielle Hart’s productivity after the fifth-year senior graduated in 2022. Thomas-Ailara is a graduate transfer from Northwestern, meaning she has one year of eligibility, who should be able to slot into the outside perfectly after Jade Demps transfer to LSU.
“It’s just really exciting. It makes our job easier in some ways, but also just demands from us,” setter MJ Hammill said in a press conference. “We’re trying to put up the best ball possible for each of our hitters because they have so much talent.”
Both transfers have already made an impact for the Badgers, but more on that later.
How does the Big Ten shape up this year?
The Big Ten has six teams currently in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) top 25, including No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 4 Nebraska and No. 5 Minnesota. None are surprising, after all ending in the top 10 at the conclusion of 2022.
The Badgers rolled through the Big Ten last year en route to a 19-1 conference record, their only blemish against Minnesota early in the season. Transfers have shaken up the Big Ten, but Wisconsin is well-positioned to have a similar season after snatching Booth and Thomas-Ailara from Big Ten rivals.
Wisconsin claims four players in the preseason all-Big Ten list, with Minnesota next, claiming three spots.
How difficult is the Badgers’ schedule this year?
Sheffield usually likes to make his teams regular season as difficult as he can, and 2023 is no different. Wisconsin is set to face 12 ranked opponents during the regular season, including four top-10 teams (though all of the Badgers’ top-10 opponents are in the Big Ten).
The Badgers have already rolled through one top opponent this year, with a 3-1 win over No. 15 Baylor on August 25. Thomas-Ailara made an instant impact for Wisconsin, scoring 12 kills with no errors and hitting .500 on 24 attempts.
“I thought one of things she did a really good job with was being smart with her swings,” Sheffield said in a press conference after the match. “That was something she wasn’t doing in Europe (during the preseason). She would go for the grand slam every time.”
Wisconsin’s next game is a series against No. 25 Arkansas on Aug. 30 and 31, which can be seen on ESPNU.
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