Everybody understood there likely would be some growing pains this season for the youthful University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
Emphasis, right now, on the pain.
The No. 7 Badgers battled No. 6 Minnesota down to the wire on Wednesday night before the Gophers prevailed in five sets 23-25, 25-20, 21-25, 25-15, 15-13 at the UW Field House.
It was the third defeat in the first five Big Ten Conference matches for the Badgers (11-3, 2-3), with all the losses coming in five sets. Two of those have come down to 15-13 fifth-set losses.
“We’re a few points here from possibly being undefeated in this league,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “We’ve lost three game fives, but the thing is as we’ve gone through this season, coming off of each loss I thought we’ve responded the right way. We’ve learned, we’ve grown.
“They’re probably tired of the learning and the growing right now. But we’ve got no choice. It’s a long season and we’ve got 15 more matches.”
The agony of another tough defeat was visible on the faces of senior Kelli Bates and freshman Sydney Hilley in the post-match news conference.
Bates was particularly frustrated with yet another fifth-set loss, especially her hitting error on match point when the ball hit the tape and rolled back on the Badgers’ side of the net.
“It stinks,” said Bates, who had 13 kills and 12 digs. “We are getting better at fifth sets, but we want to win those games. This is our time to really show that we can battle in fifth sets.
“I’m definitely putting that one on myself because as a senior I’m supposed to be guiding these young guys through a fifth set and I need to be doing more.”
Hilley, who had 56 assists, five kills and 14 digs in her first match against her home-state school, would have none of that.
“This fifth set was not on Bates, not at all,” Hilley said. “I think she went out there and played with so much confidence and I have so much trust in her. If I could replay that last point over again I’d do the same exact thing. I’d still put the ball in Bates’ hands because I know that at the end of the season when I give that to her, we’re winning.”
After splitting the first two sets, the Badgers appeared to have grabbed the momentum as they led throughout the third set.
But the Gophers (14-2, 3-2) quickly flipped things as they jumped out to an early lead and dominated the fourth set.
The Gophers opened up a 10-7 lead in the fifth set, but the Badgers battled back to pull even at 13-13. But following a timeout Minnesota got the final two points on a kill by freshman Stephanie Samedy and Bates’ hitting error.
Sophomore Alexis Hart had a career-high 24 kills to lead the Gophers, who hit .239 for the match and .407 in the final two sets.
Freshman Dana Rettke led the Badgers with 19 kills, hitting .457.
Sheffield was encouraged by the way his team fought back in the fifth set and the leadership provided by Hilley down the stretch.
“That’s one of the things I’m proud of Syd there,” he said. “The second half of that match she’s playing the way we’re wanting her to play. There was a different intensity in her eyes the last half of that match. We didn’t play too many top-10 teams getting into the conference, so we’re learning that right now.”
The Badgers will get a chance to play another top caliber team on Saturday when they travel to Michigan State, which beat them in the conference opener.
“You can tell that these guys are ticked off,” Sheffield said. “They’re not sad. They’re ticked off. So let’s get back to work. We’re probably the youngest team in this conference, we’ve got the most opportunity for growing.
“There wasn’t a single person on our team at the beginning of the year that said, ‘All right, I want to be playing our best volleyball the first week of October.’ So let’s keep getting better and learn.”
Minnesota 23 25 21 25 15
Wisconsin 25 20 25 15 13
MINNESOTA (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-9-0, Samedy 15-16-5, Seliger-Swenson 1-12-1, Lohman 4-1-7, Hart 24-3-1, Pittman 9-1-3, Martin 17-2-3, Goehner 0-11-0, Beal 0-0-0, Rosado 0-20-0. Totals 70-75-11.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Hilley 5-14-3, Gillis 12-7-0, Bates 13-12-3, MacDonald 0-7-0, Williams 9-0-5, Rettke 19-3-5, Bell 0-0-0, Dodd 0-0-0, Duello 6-2-6, Clark 0-24-0, Dodge 0-9-0, Loberg 2-0-0. Totals 66-78-12.
Hitting percentage — M .239, W .229. Aces — M 4 (Barnes, Lohman, Hart, Rosado), W 2 (Hilley 2). Assists — M 68 (Seliger-Swenson 62), W 64 (Hilley 56). Att. — 6,012.