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What to expect from the 2017 Wisconsin volleyball season

A young Badgers squad has high hopes for 2017.

Senior outside hitter Lauryn Gillis.
Senior outside hitter Lauryn Gillis.
UW Athletic Communications (David Stluka)

2016 saw the Wisconsin volleyball team reach No. 1 in the nation for the first time and grab the third overall seed in the NCAA tournament. That magical run ended with a heartbreaking Round of 8 loss to eventual champion Stanford and the graduation of one of the most talented senior classes in recent Badgers history.

2017 opens with a young and talented squad looking to build on the success of the past few seasons. Here are some of the storylines to follow this season.

Big expectations

Picking up where it left off, Wisconsin enters the season ranked No. 7 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) preseason poll.

Under coach Kelly Sheffield, Wisconsin has been to the Sweet 16 or better in the past four years.

“We don’t really talk in that manner,” Sheffield told me earlier this month when asked about the Badgers’ goals for 2017. “It’s a little bit about—this is a possibility. If you want to win a Big Ten title, if you want to win a national championship, you’ve got the talent to do that. But let’s get better every single day. That’s really all we talk about.”

“I think coming in every year, your expectations are the same, to win a national championship and a Big Ten championship,” sophomore AVCA Third-Team All-American Molly Haggerty said. “I mean we obviously fell short of that last year, but I think it was very good learning from that. I think our team already knows what is expected of us and we know what our goals are and what we need to do to achieve them, but we’re not going to talk too much about them. Sustain the process and worry about one day at a time.”

Replacing a storied senior class

Last year’s senior class was one of the most accomplished in school history, including AVCA first-team All-American Lauren Carlini and second-team All-American Haleigh Nelson. This year’s squad only boasts two seniors—outside hitter Lauryn Gillis and outside hitter/libero Kelli Bates—and two juniors—captain Amber MacDonald and AVCA third-team All-American middle blocker Tionna Williams.

Despite the departures and the lack of upperclassmen, Wisconsin returns a wealth of skill.

“I think 13 of our 17 are freshmen or sophomores, so this may be the youngest team that I’ve had," Sheffield said. "But it also may be the most talented.”

Both Haggerty and Williams were named to the preseason All-Big Ten team. Gillis led the team in kills in 2015 before missing six matches in 2016 with an ankle injury. MacDonald was a AVCA Under Armour first-team All-American in high school.

Haggerty, who had off-season back surgery, is still a few weeks away from competing.

“It’s still kind of ‘to be determined’ but based on what the trainers are saying, I’m kind of responding to the exercises and volleyball-related stuff I’ve been doing," she said. "So I would say, I’m still not planning on playing for another three weeks.”

Helping ease the pain of losing the talented seniors will be a deep recruiting class that was named by some as No. 2 in the country. Sidney Hilley, the No. 3 recruit in the country, is expected to slot in at setter to replace Carlini and others, including 6’8” middle blocker Dana Rettke and outside hitters Grace Loberg and Mariah Whalen, will likely see time.

The Big Ten is monstrous

With eight teams in the AVCA preseason Top 25 and another few knocking on the door, the Big Ten is arguably top-to-bottom the country’s most talented volleyball conference. It is certainly the deepest.

“The Big Ten in volleyball is crazy good.” Sheffield said. “Even the teams that are toward the bottom of the conference, I don’t think people appreciate just how really good they are. I’m not so sure that there’s not quite a few people just based off of talent that could not be in the Top 25 that were not ranked.

But it’s like that every year. Every year it’s a dog fight. There’s a lot of really good recruiting that’s going on. There’s some great training that’s going on. A lot of programs that are well-supported. And quite a few teams that, everybody from their administration to the fans to the staff that’s all the way in, try and win at the highest level. And there’s quite a few of those in our league, which makes it a lot of fun.”

Along with Wisconsin, No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 6 Penn State are all legitimate national title contenders. The Huskers and Gophers were national semifinalists last year and return a number of upperclassmen along with the sixth and fourth-ranked recruiting classes respectively. Penn State’s Simone Lee and Minnesota’s Samantha Seliger-Swenson were both 2016 AVCA first-team All-Americans. No. 16 Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 21 Ohio State, and No. 25 Purdue were all top-25 and NCAA tournament teams last year. Unranked Illinois also saw time in last year’s top 25 and has the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class.

“I mean, that’s why I wanted to play in the Big Ten, because every night you know whoever you’re playing, it’s going to be a very competitive match,” Haggerty said. “You can’t take any team lightly; whether it’s the top of the Big Ten or a lower team in the Big Ten, you’re always going to give you your best match. So I’m just really excited, especially for this year. I know that the freshman class overall in the country is very strong, so I know that all of the Big Ten teams are going to be stronger, which makes them very exciting to play against.”

The (renovated) Field House will be rocking

Attendance at Badgers matches has steadily increased with the team’s growing success and this season is no exception. Wisconsin sold almost 5,000 season tickets for the 10,600-seat Field House and has already sold out six matches, including early-season matchups with Louisville and North Carolina and Big Ten home showdowns with Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan.

The fans packing the Field House will get to enjoy off-season renovations including a new video board, sound system, and air conditioning.

“Oh, man, the fans are going to be excited,” Sheffield said. “The recent improvements have been for the team—you’re talking locker room and a new floor. These improvements were for the fans. So we’ve got a video board that’s just going to be great to be able to see things—stats, be able to see replays, enhance the fan experience. New sound system, so hopefully the team announcer comes through a little more clearly.”

“I think the fans, especially, in a lot of our matches have really helped us pull out of situations when we’re struggling or when we’re down,” Haggerty said. “I can definitely remember in our Ohio State match, we were down and our crowd and our fans totally gave us energy when we didn’t have it ourselves and brought us to win that game. I truly believe that if we didn’t have the fans that we did that we wouldn’t have been able to pull out that win. Even if we’re on the road, [the fans] are really supportive of us. We couldn’t ask for a more supportive program to be with.”

For those unable to get to the Field House, the Badgers will be on national television six times in 2017, including a Sept. 24 matchup against Michigan that will be shown on ESPN.

Wisconsin kicks off the season at home Friday at 7:30 p.m. CT against Louisville as part of a four-team Big Ten/ACC Challenge that also includes Minnesota and No. 11 North Carolina. The Field House sees the Badgers and Tar Heels square off at 7 p.m. CT on Saturday in the second leg of the challenge.