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Wisconsin volleyball: after long wait No. 1 Badgers finally start their season against No. 13 Purdue

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Wisconsin will look to build off their national runner-up season with a first big test against the ranked Boilermakers.

NCAA VOLLEYBALL: DEC 21 Div I Women’s Championship - Wisconsin v Stanford Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Senior All-American Dana Rettke counted it out.

“One year, one month and one day.”

That’s how long the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team has had to wait since their last competitive match, a 3-0 loss to the Stanford Cardinal in the 2019 NCAA Volleyball Championship Game.

That long wait will be over for the Wisconsin Badgers this weekend, as they will take on the No. 13 Purdue Boilermakers on Friday and Saturday in their first matches in an all Big Ten regular season.

UW’s expectations this season are lofty. The Badgers are the unanimous preseason favorites in the stacked Big Ten and earned a No. 1 ranking to start the season. Seniors Dana Rettke and Sydney Hilley earned unanimous preseason All-Big Ten team selections while senior Molly Haggerty also earned that preseason honor.

With the Badgers returning that trio and senior outside hitter Grace Loberg, senior Lauren Barnes, junior middle blocker Danielle Hart and sophomore Izzy Ashburn — all crucial cogs to last year’s Big Ten championship winning team — Rettke said the team is ready to get back to competing after the lengthy lay off.

“We were all super hungry to get back onto the court and after last season, I really felt like we had something to prove, so we’ve definitely taken that energy and brought it into the gym this preseason,” Rettke said. “We’re super excited to get going and it’s finally time.”

“We’re pumped.”

Coming into Madison are the Purdue Boilermakers, who head coach Kelly Sheffield said might be the best passing team in the Big Ten. Leading the Boilermakers’ attack are outside hitters Caityln Newton and Grace Cleveland who Sheffield singled out earlier this week as two of the best attackers in the country.

“They’ve got two really big time offensive threats that we’ll have to find a way to slow down,” Sheffield said.

Although Wisconsin comes in with a wealth of experience in the season, Sheffield said he doesn’t yet know who will fill out the starting lineup.

Newcomers and younger players might be giving Sheffield those selection headaches. Veterans who will add to Wisconsin’s core from last year are Deahna Kraft, a former beach volleyball player who transferred from Pepperdine, and Giorgia Civita, a libero from Wichita State. Along with an impressive crop of freshmen that is the fourth ranked class according to VolleyballMag.com.

Sheffield acknowledged that’s a good problem to have and said the Badgers will probably make lots of changes to lineups or rotations throughout the season. Considering the unique set up this season where Big Ten teams will play the same team back to back nights, there will be more things to review and possibly change for the next night out. That flexibility could give Wisconsin an edge because of the many players ready to contribute.

“I think the experience and depth of our team can turn into a strength for being able to make those adjustments throughout the course of the match or night to night,” Sheffield said.

Team captain and setter Sydney Hilley will likely be a mainstay in any lineup. The Brooklyn Park, Minn. native said that with the uncertainty of the offseason because of COVID-19, it was harder to try and integrate new teammates early on in the offseason. Hilley said that the team was still able to grow in the gym together with the veterans teaching a lot, as well as making sure the team maintained the energy and hunger from last season.

“We’ve definitely kept the motivation from the national championship this whole way through,” Hilley said.

But with all the issues and uncertainty of that long off time — one year, one month, one day, to be exact — Wisconsin will get the opportunity to try and achieve their goal of a national title, starting with the opening weekend against Purdue.

“We were just doing everything we could to try to get ready [for the season], and I’m so excited the opportunity has finally come,” Hilley said.

The weekend series starts at the UW Field House in Madison at 5:30 p.m. CST Friday night, with the second match starting at 8:00 p.m. CST Saturday night.