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Wisconsin volleyball: UW downs undefeated Louisville to return to national title match

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Freshman Anna Smrek’s huge night leads Badgers to championship match with thrilling five-set win over No. 1 Louisville.

2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers super senior class came back for moments just like this: another Final Four, a shot at a national title and a match against the best team in the country. It’s a setting where those seniors and their experience are expected to shine through and lead the team to the win.

But freshman Anna Smrek decided to hell with that script as she etched her name into Wisconsin volleyball’s distinguished history, ripping up the lines as she pounded a career high 20 kills — including the match winner — to beat the previously-unbeaten No. 1 Louisville Cardinals (32-1 overall) in a five-set thriller (25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9) to help push the Badgers (30-3 overall) back to the national title game.

The 6-foot-9 freshman middle blocker had fits and starts in the season — Smrek had a breakout game in Wisconsin’s sweep of Nebraska but struggled in other outings, but she put it all together when the Badgers’ veteran lineup needed an extra oomph. The Welland, Ontario-native had 20 kills, with just one error, on 27 hits — good for a .704 hitting percentage — while adding three blocks and four digs in a legendary performance on Thursday night.

Although Smrek sparkled in the spotlight, this match again proved UW’s depth and talent across the board. While the Badgers faced a 9-6 deficit in the first set, sophomore Jade Demps had a couple kills from the back row and an ace to bring the score back to a 12-12 tie.

Demps was a key part to figuring out the Badgers’ rotation after they lost Danielle Hart to an ACL injury early in the season. Previously only a pin hitter, the Raleigh, North Carolina native developed as a back row attacker, not only giving Wisconsin a new attacking element, but a solid defender and server. She and Smrek served as a sort of platoon for Wisconsin, and Demps’ development was big throughout the season. In this game, the sophomore chipped in with six kills and nine digs.

Fifth year outside hitter Grace Loberg also chipped in big time in the first set. Although the headline-stealer was Smrek, the veteran Loberg had 13 kills including three important ones in the first set with a variety of different looks from her shots. Fifth year middle blocker Dana Rettke also posted a timely kill to give UW a little run to put the Badgers up 19-16, and Wisconsin ended up winning the first set 25-23.

Louisville figured things out in the second set, giving the Badgers a rare wobble in the NCAA Tournament — it was actually the first set lost in the Big Dance. The Cardinals held UW to just .167 hitting in the second while they cruised to a 25-15 victory. Outside hitter Anna DeBeer was leading the way with 10 kills as the Badgers also struggled with service errors as they had 14 on the night.

Despite the Cardinals finding momentum in the second, the Badgers started strong on a 3-0 run in the third to respond before the set tightened up. UW found themselves down 18-16 after some more service errors before Anna Smrek helped mount a comeback in the third.

Smrek had a couple kills to bring the match to 20-20 before freshman outside hitter Julia Orzoł fired home an ace to put Wisconsin up 21-20. Smrek had two more kills, then punctuated her dominant third set with a block with Dana Rettke to end the third and give UW a 2-1 lead in the match.

Although it was a concern going in, Wisconsin was able to manage the Cardinal block, with the teams both stuffing 11 shots. However, it seemed the Badgers — save for the second set — were able to spread them out and get momentum in different moments to help propel them in the match.

The fourth set again started out tight before the Cardinals built a 15-11 lead. A block from Devyn Robinson looked to give UW the momentum as the Badgers crept back to 16-15 before Grace Loberg posted back-to-back kills at 20-19 to push UW up to a 21-20 lead and force a Louisville timeout.

The Cardinals took another lead to 22-21, but a Rettke block tied it up. An untimely service error (something which the Badgers will have to fix before the final) again put Louisville on top 24-23, then they closed out the fourth set with an ace that set up a do-or-die fifth set.

In the fifth set, the wealth of Wisconsin’s options came into focus.

Despite Louisivlle taking a 3-1 lead, the momentum changed thanks to a UW block. Dana Rettke added another to tie the set 3-3 before the outsides — Loberg and Orzoł, who finished with nine kills and seven digs — added two spectacular shots after UW went down to keep the match tied 5-5.

A Devyn Robinson block was initially called a net violation, but it turned out it was just her hair that touched the net which is legal. After the challenge, Orzoł fired home another kill, then another and UW took a 10-6 lead with a 5-0 run. It was the Polish freshman’s best set of the night as she and Smrek seem to add a youthful sense of invincibility as each shot fired home.

The Cardinals cut the lead to 10-8 before another block from Anna Smrek and an error gave UW a 12-8 lead.

I will take a slight detour here to almost apologize to Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes. Barnes covered every inch of the floor as the libero all night, as UW fans have become entitled to think will always happen. The fifth year general had a team-leading 19 digs, but made so many of the miraculous points and shots possible for the likes of Smrek, Loberg and Rettke.

Of course, fifth year setter Sydney Hilley is also the metronome that keeps time for UW’s deadly and deep offense. The Minnesotan — who studied at the feet of legendary setter Lauren Carlini — is a student worthy of the master as she made 58 assists and 11 digs look easy. It feels customary for Hilley to have a double double, and we as Badger fans take her for granted — especially me for only mentioning her in one of the very last paragraphs. The spine of Lauren Barnes and Sydney Hilley is the foundation any house will need. Also, shoutout to Giorgia Civita, who might be the loudest player and a key cog in the back row.

Grace Loberg fired home a kill to put Wisconsin within two points of a win before Anna Smrek put the nail in the coffin on the final point, giving the Badgers a release after a gutty battle against the top ranked and undefeated Louisville Cardinals.

No matter how the final ends, the Badgers and their senior spine of Rettke, Loberg, Hilley, Barnes and Civita have set the standard with a legendary dynasty. You could tell how much every second and point means to the team while it’s clear they are able to take each moment as its own. This team doesn’t get ahead of itself and never felt worried even while facing a blowout second set, even while facing the prospect of not closing out the fourth set and even while facing an early 3-1 hole in the fifth set.

Meanwhile, that foundation is boosted with the emergence of stars like Smrek, who has blossomed right before our eyes Thursday night into a future, granite-solid mold in the UW DNA.

And yet the fairytale script the fifth year seniors dreamed of — the one last ride and being carried off into the sunset — is within UW’s grasp. One more match to achieve their preseason goal that permeates the program.

That match happens Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio against either No. 3 Pittsburgh or No. 10 Nebraska.