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This Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team was a joy

This was one of the most fun seasons of sport I have ever watched.

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

The Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team are national champions. I just wanted to start off by typing that again because it is such a beautiful sequence of words. Since losing in the Final Four last year, every single decision that was made by the players and coaches in the program was leading up to Saturday night. There were no moral victories to take from this season...there was only one thing to take and that was the national championship trophy.

You wouldn’t be crazy if you said that this season’s march to the title started on June 2 because that is the day that Dana Rettke officially announced she was coming back for one more season. Sydney Hilley, Lauren Barnes, Gio Civita and Grace Loberg had already announced they’d be back but Rettke, who ended the season as the first ever five-time first team All-American and national player of the year, was the key. It would be tough to argue that she’s the most important player on the team, given all of the contributions of, well, any number of other players, but she is the best player. Without Rettke, none of this happens. She’s the leader of the team and UW needed her.

The regular season schedule was, as usual, chock full of challenges. The Badgers passed every one (except when playing Purdue, shoutout Pitt for beating them in the Tourney), beating top-ten Baylor and Kentucky in the non-conference schedule, beating Minnesota and Nebraska twice and Penn State and Ohio State once.

UW earned a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament which meant they got to play at the Field House up until the Final Four. They used the home court advantage to sweep Colgate, FGCU, No. 13 UCLA and No. 12 Minnesota right into the garbage and get back to the Final Four for the third straight season.

Then, in the Final Four, they played back-to-back instant classic matches against No. 1 Louisville and No. 10 Nebraska to claim their title. It is the first national championship and program history and while the roster is only 18 players big, this was a title for everyone who came before.

It was for Lisa Boyd. It was for Laura Abbinante. It was for Kelly Kennedy. It was for Sherisa Livingston. It was for Taylor Reineke. It was for Lauren Carlini. It was for Tionna Williams. It was for Tiffany Clark. It was for Molly Haggerty. Those women, and so many others, built the foundation of the program and set the stage for the 2021 Badgers to bring home the national title.

The most impressive thing about this team, however, was how they laughed (and danced) in the face of adversity. The amount of times I thought the team was going to lose a match only for them to come back and win is embarrassing. I was worried after Louisville blew their doors off in the second set of the semifinals. I was really nervous after a Devyn Robinson attack was blocked by Nebraska in the second set, giving the Huskers a 12-7 lead and tons of momentum, forcing Wisconsin to call timeout.

None of this bothered anyone on the actual team, thank God. They never once wavered in their dedication to each other and to their overall goal. They also did it while appearing to have the time of their lives. A lot was made about how the bench responded to each point, under the leadership of Liz Gregorski (the only Wisconsin native on the team), and while I think stuff like that can often be wasn’t for this team.

They genuinely loved each other and loved playing volleyball and you could tell every second of every match. It was freshman sensation Anna Smrek who said “I just want to ball out with my bros” after beating Nebraska back in October and that seemed to be the overall ethos of the whole team.

Playing volleyball for the University of Wisconsin was an honor for them, but they didn’t treat it too seriously. They struck the perfect balance between fun and laser-focused death machine that would only be satisfied if they won the final match of the year. A delicate line to walk to be sure.

I don’t think anyone personified this more than libero Lauren Barnes. She never gave up on a point, flying through the air and around the court with zero regard for her safety. The only thing she cared about was keeping the ball in the air. She was also the straw that stirred the drink emotionally.

Her reactions after big points were priceless but what was more important to the team was how she gassed up her teammates, especially younger players like Julia Orzol and Devyn Robinson, after they made a mistake. Barnes knew that to achieve their ultimate goal the team would need everyone and she was right! Orzol and Robinson and Smrek and Jade Demps were all integral parts of winning the national title and they didn’t cower from the big moments because Barnes told them not to.

There isn’t even enough time or words to describe what Sydney Hilley meant to this team. She was the metronome for the team. She knew exactly what the team needed at all times. She knew who to pass it to, when to pass it to them and where they liked it best. A virtuoso career that will never be forgotten.

Gio Civita played the last half of the season without use of one of her ACLs and played the same rock solid defense we grew used to. Grace Loberg stepped up in the absence of Danielle Hart to provide another attacking option for Hilley to pick out. Anna Smrek and Julia Orzol are two precocious killing machines. Devyn Robinson and Jade Demps are so versatile that they can play multiple positions at a high level. Izzy Ashburn refused to stop acing (four in the final!) people.

I am of the opinion that, like Charles Barkley once said, athletes aren’t role models. At least in the sense that they shouldn’t be the ONLY role models in a kid’s life. However, if this Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team were the role models for my two kids, I know things would turn out just fine. They are champions on and off the court and I couldn’t be more happy to have them represent my alma mater.

Congratulations to them and thank you for taking us on this wonderful ride.