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Wisconsin volleyball: veteran team aims for national title

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With almost all of Wisconsin’s stars returning, and only a few new faces, the team is looking to hang a different banner this year.

Tom Lynn

Wisconsin volleyball hasn’t wasted time talking about their expectations. That’s because everyone you talk to knows what the team is aiming for.

“I want to win the program’s first national championship,” senior setter Sydney Hilley said.

“We meet during every preseason and write down our goals. We always write down the Big Ten championship, the national championship, and we haven’t [won] that yet,” senior libero Lauren Barnes said.

“We all know that is our goal. We are trying to win the national championship and make history for this program,” senior outside hitter Grace Loberg said.

Tom Lynn

You get the picture.

Every single person on the No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers echoed the thoughts of a national title. After reaching back-to-back final fours — first in 2019 where they lost to Stanford in the championship game and second in 2021 where they lost to Texas in the semi-final — the team wants to finally get over that hump and make program history with the first national title.

This year, with players getting an extra year of eligibility thanks to the disruptions from the pandemic, nearly everyone is back for the Badgers.

Four-time All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley, Lauren Barnes, Grace Loberg and senior defensive specialist Gio Chivita all opted for another year with Wisconsin. The biggest loss will be Molly Haggerty, who will be playing professionally in Italy next year.

Tom Lynn

And the Badgers only added two new faces to the team this year. Defensive specialist Joslyn Boyer transferred in from Iowa, where she played as their libero last season and averaged 3.77 digs per set.

The other new face is freshman outside hitter Julia Orzoł, who signed with Wisconsin and only recently joined the team from her native Poland, but she has already impressed in practices and scrimmages — she had seven kills in the Red-White scrimmage and sports a wicked serve. The other members of her class, outside hitter Lauren Jardine and middle blocker Anna Smrek, both enrolled at Wisconsin early, so they were there for the altered-spring season.

Head coach Kelly Sheffield and the players said the competition is at a fever pitch in the gym, with Grace Loberg saying the competition is “insane.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard it from the other girls but it’s like we’re playing against a top ranked opponent in our own gym in practice every single day,” Loberg said. “Everybody is going balls to the wall each point, trying to prove themselves. It’s an awesome environment to be in.”

That preparation will come in handy heading into the Big Ten season, where six of the top twelve teams are in the Big Ten.

Out of conference, the Badgers also face tough tests. They host the No. 10 Baylor Bears (on Saturday!) with superstar Yossiana Pressley and the defending national champion No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats.

But with fans allowed back in stands, the UW Field House should be rocking for these massive out-of-conference match-ups. Sheffield said that the return of fans to the Field House was a big reason why some of the “super seniors” came back.

Tom Lynn

But despite the ideas of the packed Field House and continuing to play the sport they love, the goal of a national title is so pervasive in this team, to the point where Hilley says they don’t have to remind themselves of that end goal.

“That’s our mindset every time we come into the gym. We are here to get one percent better to accomplish our goals to win a national championship,” Hilley said.

The Badgers’ quest will start on Friday when they host the TCU Horned Frogs.