"They're fast, athletic and a great ball-handling team," UW head coach Pete Waite said. "We know they're a very good team and we're going to have to play our best ball to win."
Winners of their last four matches, the Ramblers are looking to become the first Horizon League team to ever advance to the second round of the tournament. They rallied from a 2-0 hole to defeat a surprising Cleveland State team in the conference finals.
"Watching them on tape, I think they are an impressive team," UW senior opposite hitter Jill Odenthal said. "They play some very good volleyball, different from what we see in the Big Ten, but nonetheless very, very good."
Playing in the Horizon League, the Ramblers lack the frontline height that is commonplace in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin—one of the biggest teams in the conference with an average height of 6-feet—features six starters measuring in at 6-foot or taller, Loyola boasts just two: middles Hilary Stromath and Kathryn Langheld.
"In the Big Ten, you have to have some size to compete, to be at the top or try to win a championship," Waite said. "In the Horizon League, it's going to be a different kind of athlete they're going to get and a different speed they're going to play."
What the Ramblers lack in height, they make up for in quickness. Running an up-tempo offense, Loyola will look to keep a taller UW squad at bay with quick sets and rapid transition from defense to offense.
"They're a lot bigger than we are, their offense is a little more powerful, but we run a fast offense," first-year Loyola head coach Tim O'Brien said. "We think that does us well against a Big Ten-type team. We try to play fast and we try to catch them off-guard—serve them tough. I think we've got all the capabilities to make this a competitive match and make this an upset."
Leading the Loyola offense is senior setter Lauren Holbrook, a four-year starter. Holbrook, who averages 12.99 assists per game, will look to an active and quick-hitting corps. The Ramblers' top offensive threat this season, at 4.32 kills per game has been 5-11 senior Nichol Amberg. Pairing with Amberg on the outside is 5-9 sophomore Courtney Ashley. The tallest player on the team is 6-foot-3 middle Hilary Stromath, who averages 3.12 kills and a team-best 0.74 blocks per game. Another middle, 6-1 Kathryn Langheld records 2.71 kills per game.
"They're a smaller team, they don't have the Stacey Gordons or the Kim Schrams that are going to jump and hit over the block," Odenthal said. "They do have quite a few very smart players who are going to hit a lot of shots and make us play some quick and different defense form what we've been working on."
In preparation for the quickness of the Loyola attack, Wisconsin will draw on its recent experience with Georgia Tech. The Badgers have matched up with the Yellow Jackets, known for running one of the faster offenses in the nation, in each of the past two seasons. One year ago, UW fell to Tech 3-2 in Atlanta, but this year defeated the Yellow Jackets by the same score at home as part of the Badger Challenge.
"I think when you play a team with a fast offense, it gets your team's attention," Waite said. "They have to pay attention all the time or their heads will be spinning. It makes them more thinking ahead on every play: where a player is going and where they are going to be on the next set, and the crossing patterns that are going on."
Wisconsin will look to its strength, a tall and talented frontline. Tallying 3.11 blocks per game, the Badgers put up statistically, the best block in the conference in 2004. Middles Sheila Shaw (1.28 blocks per game) and Taylor Reineke (1.21 blocks per game) ranked fourth and fifth in the league, respectively, in the block department.
On offense, freshman setter Jackie Simpson guides a balanced attack, spearheaded by Shaw. The junior middle was named All-Big Ten after averaging 3.81 kills per game and hitting .301 this season. On the left side, UW features junior Aubrey Meierotto and sophomore Maria Carlini. Playing opposite on the right side is Odenthal, who contributes 2.96 kills per game.
"Wisconsin's team is very talented top to bottom," O'Brien said. "They've got senior players, they've got freshmen players all contributing to their success this year. I think their offense is very strong from the left-side. They block very well and those are some things we're going to have to contend with."