For Wisconsin volleyball, 2018 may be a season to remember.
Last season saw Wisconsin field an extraordinarily young team, including seven freshmen on the roster. Despite growing pains at times, Wisconsin finished the year 22–10 and made it to the Sweet 16. For the second straight year, however, the Badgers saw their season end at the hands of Stanford in the NCAA tournament.
Although Wisconsin loses outgoing senior outside hitters Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis, the Badgers return a wealth of talent and look to make a run in a deep Big Ten.
“If we’re healthy, we’ll have more depth than I have ever had anywhere I’ve been,” Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield told B5Q.
Sophomore middle blocker Dana Rettke looks to build on an extraordinary first season that saw her named a first-team All-American, American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Freshman of the Year, and Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Rettke finished 2017 averaging 4.39 points per set and 1.37 blocks per set. If she continues her growth, she will be in the national player of the year discussion.
“At the end of the season, at the very end of the season, she became a player that was telling Sydney, ‘Give me the ball, set me the ball’ in big moments.” Sheffield said. “For much of the year that wasn’t what was happening to her. So, what I am seeing is a player that is starting to believe, starting to have confidence.
“And now you couple that with a summer of strength training and the impact that is having in her movement and her explosiveness on somebody that’s 6’8 and she picks up on that stuff real well. Sometimes people are doing strength training and it does not really move the dial a whole lot and there are others that it really, really has an impact. And it’s really having an impact on her. So I am excited. You know it’s clear that not only do you have size, have athleticism, and her skill is catching up, but it’s a player that is as hungry as I have ever seen and now has a lot of confidence, more than she’s ever had in this sport. So all of those things are all coming together right about now.”
Sophomore setter Sydney Hilley, a 2017 AVCA Honorable Mention All-American and member of the Big Ten All-Freshman team anchors the Wisconsin offense. A highly-touted recruit, Hilley met the challenge of replacing four-time All-American Lauren Carlini, finishing 2017 averaging 11.76 assists per set.
2017 All-Big Ten and AVCA Honorable Mention All-American middle blocker Tionna Williams is the only senior on the roster, and the Badgers will rely on her steady leadership.
“With Tionna, you know with her what you are going to get out of her, match in, match out.” Sheffield said. “There are not these extreme highs or extreme lows from the performance standpoint. Which you love and you learn to count on. And as our only senior going into this year, it’s extremely important.”
Badgers fans will get to see another familiar face in the cardinal and white in 2018. After redshirting last season with a back injury, 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Molly Haggerty returns to action.
“She said to me numerous times that it’s the best [her back has] felt since her freshman year.” Sheffield said. “She feels like she’s got the strength where it needs to be. So I think she’s got the enthusiasm; she’s as excited as I’ve seen her in her career here. She is just fired up about getting going.”
Haggerty agrees. “It’s doing really, really good. I think this is the best it’s felt in a very long time. In the summer, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a lot of heavier weights than I am used to and it’s been holding up really, really well, so I am excited about that.”
The Big Ten once again looks to be a powerhouse conference, with seven teams in the preseason AVCA top 25. Four of those are in the top 10, headlined by defending national champion No. 2 Nebraska.
“We finished seventh in the Big Ten and 12th in the country [in 2017].” Sheffield said. “I mean that right there tells you. In a sport that has 340 teams—this is not a sport that just has 30 or 40 teams in it—340 teams and we finished seventh and 12th. It’s just so good and it is so good night and night out.
“What I didn’t understand and appreciate until I got in this league is how good, how unbelievable the middle teams are and the bottom teams are in this league. If you are finishing 10th or 11th in the Big Ten, you’re a really good team. When you get in there in the top half dozen teams, those are teams that can get to the Final Four. You finish fifth or sixth in the Big Ten, you can find a path to the Final Four, that wouldn’t be nuts or insane. Every year it’s good. I’ve stopped saying, ‘Hey, this is the best year it’s ever been,’ because it just seems ludicrous to say that, ever. When every single year, if you are a competitive junkie, there’s not better place to be.”
The competition suits Rettke just fine. “It’s a dog fight and I absolutely love it. Just the competition, every single night. You are never guaranteed a win in the Big Ten and that’s something that’s really awesome because you get to play your best every single night. You get to play against the best every single night. And being a competitor, that’s what I look for, playing the best and beating the best every single night.”
In yet another sign of the program’s progress, Wisconsin will open the upper deck of the Field House for the 2018 season.
“Man, I couldn’t be more pumped.” Sheffield said. “You just picture what that will look like when the fans are on top of you instead of just surrounding you, they’re actually on top of you.
“On the floor, you can actually see the power and the speed and the athleticism of the players when you’re down there on the floor. But up on top, I think it’s a better visual. It’s an awesome, awesome view. I am excited for the fans to get more people in here. I’m really, really pumped about what that’s going to feel like on game day.”
Rettke agrees. “[Match day] is an experience that I don’t think can be found anywhere else. Just the energy that all of our fans bring into the Field House every single night is amazing. Honestly, I can’t even describe it. I get so excited to play for them. And they are super knowledgeable about volleyball too, which helps a lot. Just bringing that energy to the court also really helps. They’re all really passionate about us as a team and a sport is amazing. And now having the upper deck open will make it even more loud and exciting.”
Wisconsin opens the season on Friday in Minneapolis against North Carolina and Saturday against Florida State as part of a four-team ACC/Big Ten round-robin. Wisconsin may find its season book-ended in Minneapolis, this year’s host of the Final Four.
“Last year, we were really young and I think now that all of us have a year of experience under our belt, now we know what to expect.” Rettke said.
“I think a lot of people really think that it can happen this year, especially being at the Final Four last year and watching the national championship against Florida and Nebraska, it’s just the shortest of margins that separates the people who achieve a national championship versus the people that lost in any round of the tournament, honestly. It’s such a slim margin. So I think if we really focus in and worked towards that, anything is possible.”