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Wisconsin volleyball: UW holds off Nebraska in five sets for first ever national title

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Though the senior class are the scene-stealers, it was a whole team effort and the gritty mentality that gave UW the trophy it craved

VOLLEYBALL: DEC 18 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the start of the 2021 season, the Wisconsin Badgers — a team with their fair share of late season heartbreak and bad moments — decided this was the year. After a third straight Big Ten title, a third straight Final Four appearance, and the second NCAA final in three seasons, this had to be the year.

Then they came out flat against Nebraska on Saturday night in the national championship match and dropped the first set. Here we go again. It’s Stanford 2019. It’s Texas this past spring. It’s countless other times that the Badgers carried the monkey on their back of “not winning when it counts.”

Except it wasn’t like the other times.

Except this team decided this was the year. Their year. And they made history.

No. 4 Wisconsin out-battled and out-lasted the No. 10 Nebraska Cornhuskers, winning in five sets (22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12) to win the program’s first ever national championship in volleyball and make the seniors’ decision to return for an extra year worth it as the confetti rained down in celebration.

Of course it was the combination of Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke — two roommates and fifth year seniors who came back along with Grace Loberg, Lauren Barnes and Gio Civita — who added the final exclamation point into a match that can only be described as an epic. It was maybe even technically the second championship point, as UW thought they had closed out the set on an error from Nebraska before a challenge meant the two teams had to finish the fifth set over again.

Rettke in particular was the catalyst in the fifth set for Wisconsin. The fifth year senior and arguably one of the greatest — if not the greatest — athletes in Badger history sparked the team to a 7-0 run in the deciding set. By my (rough) count, Rettke had three blocks and three kills in the final frame including the championship winner.

Flailing fist bumps and chest pounds and all has been the emotional heart of Wisconsin throughout this entire run of three-straight Final Fours, and her post-game reaction said it all: tears and loss for words, barely able to fathom that, at the end of the day, she and her teammates will forever be a team that echoes throughout history. Rettke finished with 11 kills and 13 blocks in a night that proved why she is so special.

That senior class — Barnes, Civita, Loberg, Hilley, Rettke and also reserve middle blocker Julia Wohlert — were the first to touch the trophy, and all came up in moments when they needed to. Libero Lauren Barnes was on another level tonight, scooping up 31 digs and creating Superman-esque highlights as she was determined to bring UW over the line for the title. Hilley did not have a great night by her lofty standards — spare a thought for all the service errors Wisconsin racked up that in the end did not matter but at the time felt like death by a thousand paper cuts — yet commanded Wisconsin’s offense with 51 assists.

Gio Civita might have the hardest niche to remember in the group, but her sacrifice is also worth mentioned. She was passing well all night, getting nine digs and shepherded the Badgers through a tough start of the match with dangerous serving and a calm on the backline after Nebraska put together a 6-1 opener that illustrated UW’s nerves. She did that all on no ACL after she tore the same one for the fourth time, and even added an ace.

Grace Loberg had an up-and-down season and at times an up-and-down night. But as with most of the season, she was trusted when UW needed to get a safe hit to reset or fire home a kill. Loberg had 10 kills and only two errors, but seemed to get going in moments when she was needed the most.

Loberg’s big moments were aplenty in the second set. The outside hitter never had blocking as her specialty, but she had three on the night including one right after a kill that tied that set at 20-20.

Perhaps the most heart attack inducing set on the night, the second set, was where the seniors came up the biggest. Facing a 2-0 deficit, Wisconsin fought of four set points from the Huskers to eventually win 31-29. In those moments, Loberg had a kill to tie the match back at 28-28, Rettke had a block to tie the match at 29-29 before Rettke polished off the last two points on her own for the 31-29 set win.

The block was where UW did most of their work on the night. Wisconsin had a season-high 23 blocks, with Rettke leading the way with 13 while sophomore Devyn Robinson pitched in with 10 herself. Freshman Julia Orzoł struggled on offense, but pitched in with six blocks and 12 digs as Nebraska tested her on the serve all night.

It was one of those nights for Wisconsin where things might not have always been clicking, but each player stepped up when it needed to. Robinson might have had only six kills with six errors, but she finished off the third set for UW with back-to-back kills to win 25-23. Junior Izzy Ashburn added four crucial aces throughout the night, and Orzoł had a big ace late on.

The two keys for Wisconsin tonight though would not have been playing if things went differently this season. Freshman Anna Smrek and sophomore Jade Demps were thrust into the lineup after senior Danielle Hart tore her ACL about a month into the season. Smrek and Demps became a two-headed monster that rotated off each other, and gave Nebraska fits all night.

From the back row, Jade Demps had 12 kills and nine digs while hitting .346. She consistently had crucial kills for momentum, and forced Nebraska to not just key on the other attackers up front, like Rettke. Meanwhile freshman Anna Smrek, who came off a monster performance against Louisville in the semi-finals, led the team with 14 kills and added seven blocks. Combined, Smrek and Demps had 26 kills, remarkable considering their late additions to the rotation.

Although Wisconsin dropped the fourth set, it illustrated the mentality of the team that helped it clinch that deciding fifth set. Nebraska had put together a 5-0 run to go up 21-17 in the fifth. Although Smrek got a kill to make it 21-18, Orzoł had a service error to give momentum back to the Huskers, who eventually went up 24-20 after another service error from Jade Demps.

UW fought off three set points, battled through those costly errors by some of the younger players and despite falling in part because of an incredible dig by Husker defensive specialist Keonilei Akana — sidenote, Akana would be a libero at any other school she played at, has a diabolical serve and a fantastic name that just made me more frustrated that she wasn’t on our side of the net — that let Nebraska close the set 25-23 and set up a do-or-die fifth set.

The Badgers shook off the negative energy, used that late surge as a bit of momentum and immediately pressed Nebraska. Smrek started things off with a kill, Rettke and Demps had kills and soon UW’s lead ballooned to 7-0 and made Nebraska call its timeouts.

The Huskers also battled back, but despite struggling serving all night, it was Jade Demps from the service line that gave Wisconsin championship point with an ace on her short serve.

That is what happens when you don’t quit. That is what happens when you don’t expect doom and gloom after a couple of missed chances. That is what happens even when your team is hitting at a lower percentage than normal all game and their back row is covering every inch of the court.

That is what happens when you decide this is the time to burst through the ceiling and win the program’s first every national championship. That is what happens when you have a roster full of players who fight for every shot and don’t let those past mistakes hurt.

That is why the Wisconsin Badgers are the national champions in 2021.

And man, does that feel good.