MADISON – The marathon that is the Big Ten race is almost over for Wisconsin’s volleyball team, but the toughest part has been saved for last. Here is a taste of what is on deck.
Four conference road games to close the regular season.
Three ranked opponents, including two that are locked in a three-way battle for the conference championship with the Badgers.
Back-to-backs on both weekends to complete a run of three straight to end the year.
The stretch is unique. Every other Big Ten team except UW and Minnesota has at least one home match during this stretch. And among the top contenders for the title – UW, Ohio State and Nebraska – Wisconsin is the only team with back-to-backs both weekends.
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield called it a gauntlet.
“I can never recall an end of the season quite like what we’ve got in front of us with the last four matches on the road, the amount of travel that we’ve got in the short turnaround and three of those teams being in the top 15 of the country,” Sheffield said. “It should be an exciting stretch down here.”
A fourth straight Big Ten title is within reach
Should UW survive, it would make history. A Big Ten crown would be the program’s fourth straight. Only Penn State’s eight-year run (2003-10) is longer – the Nittany Lions also had a four-year run from 1996-99. There is also the matter of the NCAA tournament and the chance to earn a top four seed that would allow the Badgers to host the first and second rounds and, should they advance, the regional.
The fun starts at 6 pm Friday at Rutgers.
“You’ve got to get your rest. It’s the boring stuff that you’ve got to take care of,” Sheffield said. “You have to take care of your body and be ready to go. Scouting report has to be ready to go. (The players) have got to be able to digest it. It’s what you sign up for when you come into this league. “
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What Wisconsin is experiencing is one of the quirks of the Big Ten schedule. On two other occasions during Sheffield’s 10 seasons the Badgers closed the regular season with four road matches, in 2013 and ’18. The schedule quirks have worked both ways, though. Last season Wisconsin played three of its final four at home, part of a run of five of six at home.
Ideally Sheffield would like a Wednesday-Saturday schedule of games. That would allow for two days of preparation/rest between matches and an off-day on Sunday.
Made for Big Ten Network matchups
Consider this end-of-season run the price of success. As one of the conference’s most successful programs, Wisconsin has become must-see programming for the Big Ten Network. The network dictates scheduling and this year it put together a juicy slate of late-season matchups.
There are six top-20 matchups featuring the top three teams in the league.
U plays at No. 14 Penn State on Saturday. Next Friday the Badgers travel to No. 6 Nebraska, which is one game back in the standings, and then goes to No. 5 Ohio State, which is tied for the league lead with UW.
Also on tap is No. 19 Purdue at Nebraska on Sunday, No. 9 Minnesota at Ohio State on Nov. 25 and Minnesota at Nebraska on Nov. 26.
“We’ve been barking about trying to get ourselves more television exposure then when you get it, you can’t complain too much about we didn’t get enough rest or sleep,” Sheffield said. “It kind of comes with the territory.”
U’s run through the final two weeks includes a couple more unique hurdles. Its trips to Rutgers and Penn State are among the farthest for the Badgers in the Big Ten. And on the final weekend, they play Nebraska at 7 pm Friday and then turn around and have the early game, a 6 pm start, at Ohio State.
But there is a rub the other way, too. Closing the season with so many Friday-Saturday matchups has afforded the Badgers players a true off-day. Sunday is Sheffield’s preferred off-day, but when the team plays on Sundays, it usually takes off Monday, a day when most players still have class.
“At the end of the day we’ve got four matches left. We’re tied for the league lead. We’ve got an opportunity to win another Big Ten championship,” Sheffield said. “At home or on the road, we’re excited that we’ve had this kind of season, excited that fans will be able to watch us on TV if they choose to do that.”