For the first time since 1998, the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team will play a game at the Kohl Center, the 17,000-seat venue that is home to the Badgers men’s basketball and hockey, taking on Florida on Sept. 16.
The Badgers, fresh out of the NCAA Division I championship, usually play their games at UW Field House, the former home of UW basketball teams, nearly 100 years old, before the opening from the Kohl Center in January 1998. But with a higher profile and a tough opponent heading to town, the Badgers could play in front of a crowd that threatens the league’s regular-season single-game record of 14,022. NCAA, established in 2018 when Creighton faced Nebraska in Omaha.
When the Badgers beat Nebraska for the NCAA title in Columbus, Ohio on Dec. 21, the 18,755 in attendance set a record for a women’s volleyball championship game. It also happened to be the most-watched volleyball game ever broadcast on ESPN networks.
The Kohl Center can hold more than 17,000 spectators for basketball games, but volleyball hasn’t been played at the site since the NCAA Final Four ended Dec. 19, 1998, with Long Beach State beating Penn State in a five-set battle as a then-record crowd of 13,194 was witnessed. UW played in a small tournament at the Kohl Center the previous September.
Even in the Field House’s smaller capacity venue (increased to 7,540 after a 2021 renovation), the Badgers are regularly among the nation’s leaders in attendance for home games and boast one of the largest venues in the nation. Since 2014, UW has finished second to Nebraska in annual attendance.
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Florida, which finished 15th in the final NCAA rankings last year, also happens to be one of the top 10 spectators in the country.
Wisconsin already has road games on its schedule on August 26 (at TCU) and August 27 (at Baylor), the latter against another of the nation’s perennial powerhouses and a defeated Wisconsin team in the 2019 Final Four. UW is set to open its home schedule against interstate rival Marquette on Sept. 2 at Field House.
The Badgers capped a three-year Final Four triumphant streak with the title last year, and many of the team’s familiar faces graduated, including five-time All American center tackle Sidney Hilley. Dana Rettke, libero Lauren Barnes and away. hitter Grace Loberg.
But it’s not an entirely new team. Devyn Robinson, who made the NCAA Regional Team of the Tournament as a sophomore last season and earned a Big Ten second-team nod, is back, as is Anna Smrek, whose performance outstanding in the tournament as a rookie rewarded her. NCAA Championship Most Valuable Player honor.
2021 Big Ten Rookie of the Year Julia Orzol also returns, as does key outside first hitter Jade Demps, serving virtuoso Izzy Ashburn and defensive specialist Joslyn Boyer. Danielle Hart, a two-time Big Ten second-team pick at center tackle who featured prominently in plans last year before suffering a season-ending ACL injury, will also return. .
Then there are the transfers, including former Michigan State outside hitter Sarah Franklin, an all-conference first-team pick in the Big Ten last year as a sophomore, when she led the Spartans with 3.96 kills per set (third in the conference). The Badgers also added middle tackle Caroline Crawford, a first-team all-conference pick in the Big 12 at Kansas as a rookie two years ago who earned second-team honors last year; and Gabby McCaa, a blocking powerhouse during her three years at Boston College.
The program also added Gülce Güçtekin, a libero from Turkey, and 6-4 outside hitter Ella Wrobel of Plainfield, Illinois.