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Wisconsin volleyball: Anna Smrek ready to take reins of UW’s run for repeat, starting with TCU

The 6-foot-9 freshman was a phenom in her first year, and she thinks UW will contend even without legendary senior class on the court

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

The last time Wisconsin touched the floor in a game of any meeting, confetti rained down at the end of it, coronating a super senior class with a national championship pretty much five years in the making.

The next time the Badgers play — Friday against the TCU Horned Frogs on ESPN+ at 7:00 p.m. — will be a reset in some ways for the program. Just don’t tell that to Anna Smrek.

Last year, the 6-foot-9 middle blocker from Canada was a freshman phenom. She had at times an up-and-down season because of injuries and a changing rotation but truly broke out with a game against Nebraska in Lincoln in the middle of the season where she posted 12 kills and a .647 hitting percentage.

Smrek still saved her best for last, posting 20 kills and 14 kills in the Final Four against Louisville and Nebraska to earn MVP honors of the NCAA Championship.

It might have been Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley, Grace Loberg, Lauren Barnes, and Gio Civita’s final masterpiece, but Smrek said that legacy isn’t gone. The preseason All-Big Ten first-team middle blocker said their legacy taught the team so many things, so it will be still like they’re playing with them.

But that doesn’t mean the Badgers will shrink away, at least according to Smrek.

“We might be a younger team now, but I feel like a lot of people are underestimating (us),” Smrek said. “We still have so much depth, and with a lot of the new people coming in. It’s going to be good.”

“I think we’re ready to go,” Smrek said.

Smrek now emerges as one of the leaders for a new-look Badger team that brings on two new freshmen and four new transfers — including an All-Big Ten outside hitter in Sarah Franklin.

Smrek is now totally road-tested by the Big Ten after last season where she played 25 matches, starting 19, but she had plenty of international experience before getting to Madison. Smrek played for the Canadian Youth National Team from 2018 to 2020 where she won a silver medal at 2018 NORCECA Championship in Honduras and competed in the 2019 World Under-18 Championship in Egypt.

That served her well in her opening season in the Big Ten. But despite the accolades she earned, she is hoping to continue to improve on her blocking ability, along with the rest of the front line.

Smrek said a lot of that front is working on improving their “eyework,” basically meaning looking across the net and anticipating the moves and where the ball might be going after the setter sets the ball. Because volleyball is so fast-moving, Smrek said it means the team will have to get better footwork to get in the right spot for a block and “snap” to that spot with a quick reaction, especially as the first line of defense.

Smrek formed a uniquely-tall block with Dana Rettke — pity the teams up against a 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8 wall — whereas as a freshman put up .61 blocks per set. But new and old pieces will on the front line add some blocking prowess as well.

New transfer Caroline Crawford is someone who Smrek said is bringing something good to the team. Crawford posted five blocks in UW’s opening scrimmage, while Danielle Hart returns from an injury and Devyn Robinson had one block per set last year.

Smrek also said the new blood into the program has meant the team is learning more from their experiences, and she already has her eye on freshman Ella Wrobel as someone who could make an instant impact as well. The 6-foot-4 outside hitter was the top player in Illinois last season and gives UW even more depth.

“No one has really seen her in the college setting,” Smrek said. “Even in our open gyms, she’s come out with a bang, coming out swinging.”

In the Badgers’ opener against TCU, there are still a lot of unknowns to be answered. There will be a new setter (or two), there will be a new libero and there will be a new target on Wisconsin’s back as the national champions.

But Smrek not only thinks UW has the right mix of depth and new faces coming into the program, but despite being a sophomore, she feels ready to lead the team back to the Final Four — and is already adept at coach speak.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time, get one percent better each day and hopefully we’ll get (again),” Smrek said.

The road back to a title starts in Fort Worth at 7:00 p.m.