MADISON — On Sunday afternoon, the city of Madison welcomed home the National Champion Wisconsin Badgers women’s volleyball team with a celebration at the UW Field House.
Doors opened an hour before the event began and a condensed version of the championship match was played on the big screen prior to the team’s arrival. Although everyone in attendance already knew the outcome, the Field House roared with each point that UW scored.
The celebration was emceed by Jon Arias, the radio voice of UW volleyball. One by one, players and coaches were introduced to the crowd. Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes entered together, holding the Big Ten Championship trophy, and Dana Rettke was the final player announced. Fittingly, she carried the program’s first ever National Championship trophy into the Field House.
Following introductions, University of Wisconsin-Madison Director of Athletics Chris McIntosh addressed the crowd, followed by several players and head coach Kelly Sheffield.
First up was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Anna Smrek. Smrek gave all credit to her teammates, which was a common theme throughout the ceremony.
Smrek was followed by Sydney Hilley, who when asked if winning the championship had hit her yet, told the crowd, “I don’t think so. I'm still kind of in shock.” Hilley also mentioned that winning the title is a championship for more than just the players on this season’s roster, but also the alumni who came before them.
Arias asked Hilley about having to celebrate twice after Nebraska challenged what seemed to be championship point: “Me and Dana both swear that we didn’t touch it but apparently there was a touch... the second one was a better celebration anyways.” The Field House crowd loved that one.
The third and final player to speak was AVCA National Player of the Year Dana Rettke, who like Hilley mentioned that it has not hit her yet: “I would still say I’m in disbelief. I don’t think it’ll really set in for a couple of days...In the moment, it was just shock. We did it.”
Rettke was asked to summarize her illustrious career in just a couple of sentences: “I don’t think that can be done in just a couple of sentences... these five years have been the best journey of my life. I think that will forever be the case.”
Kelly Sheffield closed out the event and reflected on the championship run: “It was epic. The entire weekend was epic. You’re so proud in that moment, and exhausted...This is amazing, I can’t even tell you what it means to all of us to walk in here and see this.”
Sheffield took time to recognize the many different groups of people that contributed to the championship: “I’m so happy for our players and our alums, as well as our staff and administration, previous coaches that have been here before me, and for our fans that have been with us every step of the way.”
Like Hilley, Sheffield recognized the alumni who helped develop the UW volleyball program, as well as their presence at the Final Four: “The number of alums that we saw there in Columbus was insane... there is so much pride in being a Badger. That’s another reason why you want to win this thing is for them. Their blood, sweat and tears is on this floor as well.”
The band’s first song of the night is none other than “We Are the Champions”. Crowd went nuts. pic.twitter.com/RzuntuTicW— Jake Dicker (@jakedicker) December 19, 2021
The Field House swayed as the UW Band led the crowd in “Varsity!”, and the players and staff jogged off the stage to a round of applause and cheers from the fans.
Following the event, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with both Rettke and Sheffield.
Rettke broke down the final kill: “That rally was epic, I mean Nebraska was making some crazy defensive plays. I got a block touch, Grace (Loberg) played it off the block, it was a little tight so Syd (Hilley) went up to set it and the Nebraska blockers went up with her and that gave me wide open net. I just saw there was no block and hit it as hard as I could from where I was and it got the job done. The emotion with that was complete shock... you saw it in my face I was in awe. It was such a surreal moment but it was super epic.”
On Friday, Rettke was named the AVCA National Player of the Year. She spoke about what that award means to her: “I’m so honored to receive that award. There are so many great players in the NCAA this year that are all extremely qualified for this award. It’s a huge honor, I can’t do that without my teammates. They put me in such great positions and they make me look good. It speaks so much about the players that we have in our program and our coaching staff. I’m so happy that the award is here, in the Field House now because truly it is a team award. I can’t do it all by myself. It’s kind of crazy to think about, I can’t really believe that either. It was a shock to me for sure.”
Head coach Sheffield reflected on the win and spoke about what it means to finally get over the hump and win a title: “We’ve had some really unbelievable seasons in the past, things we’re very proud of, winning Big Ten titles and getting to Final Fours, Sweet Sixteens, those are really hard things to do. But to finally knock that door down, there’s now 12 programs that have ever won a National Championship. To join that exclusive club I think is special.”
I asked Sheffield what he told his team following the first set vs. Nebraska, heading into a must-win second set: “I thought we were a little bit jittery to start out. We were anxious and it was showing with some of the different things we were doing. I thought we were working our way through that as the first set happened and then we outscored them at the end. We were starting to find our way a little bit, just a reminder of that and you know, we’ll get more comfortable as this match goes on. Keep going and keep being courageous.”
Sheffield on the emergence of Anna Smrek: “The young kids here have quite a future. There haven’t been too many freshman that have gone on that stage. That was the biggest crowd in NCAA volleyball history (semi-final vs. Louisville) and [Smrek] just went out there and played like she was in her backyard. Jade Demps was another one that was just fantastic and had a great final. Devyn Robinson and Julia Orzol, our young kids were really key and critical in this win.”
UW was led by super-seniors who all chose to come back for one final season. Sheffield talked about that group and what their return meant to his program: “First of all, I think it says that they’re enjoying their experience here. Not just volleyball wise, but their collegiate experience, their experience at this university. They didn’t want to go to another school to play, they wanted to stay here and play together. These are student athletes, at the end of the day we get caught up in wins and losses but you want them to enjoy their experience. They just went to work, mentored the younger kids, played together, fought through adversity and ultimately were rewarded at the end of it.”
The event was truly a celebration and a warm welcome home for the Badgers, who I’m sure will continue to celebrate this victory for a long time. They deserve it.