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Wisconsin volleyball: Notes from Big Ten Media Days

Head coach Kelly Sheffield, All-Big Ten middle blocker Anna Smrek and All-Big Ten outside hitter Sarah Franklin addressed the media in the inaugural conference media day

NCAA Womens Volleyball: NCAA Volleyball Final Four
After a national title winning season in 2021, the Badgers talked about new roles, new faces and increased coverage heading into the 2022 season.
Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Big Ten hosted the first ever volleyball-specific Media Days Monday and Tuesday. All 14 conference teams were represented by their head coaches and two players and spoke in front of national and local media alike.

Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield, preseason All-Big Ten middle blocker Anna Smrek and preseason All-Big Ten outside hitter Sarah Franklin spoke about the expectations for the upcoming season, the growth of the game, and just how competitive the Badgers’ gym is. Here are some of the highlights from media day.

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

Sheffield happy for exposure for the players and sport

Most coaches and players described the thrill of being all together in front of the media in the first-ever event for any conference. Head coach Kelly Sheffield was obviously included in that group, but he hopes that it will go even further.

Sheffield has been outspoken about growing the coverage of the game and asking big networks to broadcast more games on TV instead of just streaming services like ESPN+ or Big Ten+. This year, a record 55 Big Ten games will be broadcast across a variety of networks, but there is still room for improvement — especially outside the Big Ten.

“If we’re the only conference that’s doing this this time next year, then there’s a little bit of failure in that, right? The Big Ten has shown great leadership in being the first one, but there’s got to be three, four, seven conferences that are doing this next year,” Sheffield said.

“This is a sport that people are passionate about following and putting a spotlight on that and giving access is — it’s got to be more than the Big Ten moving forward,” Sheffield added.

Another deal announced during media days was a partnership between the Big Ten and VolleyballWorld where more than 70 Big Ten volleyball matches will appear worldwide on

Sheffield thinks the deal is “massive” for the sport but also for the Big Ten for exposure. UW has recently gotten multiple international players including Gio Civita from Italy, Anna Smrek from Canada, Julia Orzoł from Poland, and incoming freshman Gülce Güçtekin from Turkey.

This move will make it easier for families to watch their children play, and families learning about the NCAA and student-athlete system could be good. As often maligned as it might be in the US, that could be a great option for some families internationally where a player could both get an education and also compete at a high level — something not often offered for other athletes.

“I do think you’re going to see a floodgate of not just international kids coming in (to the Big Ten),” Sheffield said.

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

Anna Smrek stepping into a bigger role

The last time Anna Smrek touched the floor of a volleyball court, she was named MVP of the NCAA Tournament and won a national title with two of her best matches in a row in wins against Louisville and Nebraska.

Now, the sophomore from Ontario is filling a huge void left by the legendary Dana Rettke. The 6-foot-9 middle blocker said despite still being pretty young, she feels comfortable stepping into a bigger role.

“We respect confrontation and each other’s voices in the gym,” Smrek said. “I feel like our team has a lot of trust in each other. I feel like I can speak about things, and I think everybody kind of tackled a new leadership role.”

Smrek added that night and win really gave her a lot of confidence in herself and her play —and she gets asked for pictures around Madison more and more. While the now immortal class of Loberg, Rettke, Civita, Barnes, and Hilley won’t be around, Smrek thinks they helped lay the foundation for UW going forward.

“They taught us, it’s almost like we’re still playing alongside with everything they showed and left us with,” Smrek said.

Sheffield said he expects Smrek to continue to improve in her career. He said she has a great drive to learn more and “lean into information.”

“She wants to be great. She doesn’t get small in big moments,” Sheffield said.

Sarah Franklin fits in right away in Wisconsin’s competitive gym

Wisconsin added a lot of new faces with the departure of the seniors. That group includes transfers Caroline Crawford from Kansas, Gabby McCaa from Boston College, and Shanel Bramschreiber from Baylor as well as freshmen Ella Wrobel and Gülce Güçtekin.

But perhaps the biggest name joining the red and white is outside hitter Sarah Franklin. The 6-foot-4 outside hitter joins the Badgers from the Spartans, where she earned 2021 First-Team All-Big Ten honors and she posted 3.96 kills per set.

Franklin said it was a hard decision to transfer, but after a two-day visit with the players and coaches, she felt there wouldn’t be another visit going better.

“Getting to Wisconsin on campus with all the girls and with Coach Sheffield, I felt like it was just right,” Franklin said.

Franklin only got on campus in the summer but feels she’s already fit in well. Her competitiveness and passion for volleyball have helped her fit right into the UW culture.

“Coming and playing in these open gyms this summer, it feels natural,” Franklin said.

Although the Badgers won the national title last year, a lot of newcomers, like Franklin, added a new dynamic to the building. Smrek said the team’s culture is all about being gritty, not letting the ball touch the floor, and an emphasis on putting your best foot forward.

So far, Franklin has noticed that level of competition, and it is exactly what she wanted in a program and teammates.

“We are a family,” Franklin said. “We are allowed to do and have that kind of friendly competition and confrontation.”

Other notes

  • While talking about transfers into the program, Sheffield noted that the program is still looking to get Baylor grad Shanel Bramschreiber eligible. Bramschreiber was Baylor’s libero the past three seasons and would join the team for just one season.
  • Fifth-year senior Danielle Hart will be one of the team’s captains this season. Hart is coming off an ACL tear last season and will be an add to the lineup if she can remain healthy.
  • Sheffield also said that Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill will be captains as well, and both would work as setters at times. He added he is unsure yet whether the Badgers will run a 5-1 or 6-2 system. During some matches in the spring, UW tinkered with that lineup.