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“Unique” setting duo Ashburn and Hammill hope to power Badgers to championships

Here’s why seniors Ashburn and Hammill say they thrive in a system that can be more “selfless.”

Setters Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill — shown here at the Big Ten Media Days event in Chicago Aug. 2 — are the dynamic duo running Wisconsin’s 6-2 rotation. Why they think their partnership helps UW’s game really shine.
UW Athletics

At the beginning of last year, the Wisconsin Badgers were a new look team in more ways than one.

Gone was the historic senior class that capped off its run in style with a thrilling national championship win in Columbus, Ohio. UW’s metronome of a setter Sydney Hilley — a four-year starter and three-time Big Ten Setter of the Year — graduated, leaving a question mark at setter for the first time since Lauren Carlini stepped on campus in 2013.

Head coach Kelly Sheffield had two setters on the bench in Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill. Ashburn, who went to the same high school at Hilley, was a serving specialist who notched the most aces on the team in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Hammill started one match in spring 2021, filling in for Hilley to lead UW to a win over Minnesota.

Sheffield decided to make use of both players, ditching the tried and true 5-1 rotation for a 6-2 rotation that could offer more firepower to Wisconsin’s already stout attack. The change worked, with the Badgers winning a fourth-straight Big Ten title and no hitches on offense with both Ashburn an Hammill leading the ropes at different times.

Sheffield said he tested them both as the lone setter in 5-1 rotations in a few matches during the Badger’s summer tour, but Hammill and Ashburn were united in wanting to stick with the 6-2.

As the Badgers return to prepare for a run at another Big Ten title and a chance for a national championship, Ashburn believes her and Hammill’s dynamic duo will continue to propel UW’s offense forward.

“It’s a little team between me and her,” Ashburn said. “It really does optimize us, and help us put our hitters in the best situation possible.”

Generally, the most popular offense to run in volleyball is a 5-1 rotation. In this offense, the setter is not subbed out, and she will play in the front row and the back row positions. When Hilley was UW’s setter, she never came off the floor, doing everything from serving to helping the block up front. That was the obvious example of a 5-1.

In running the 6-2, the two setters will only ever play on the back row as the team rotates, taking turns and subbing in and out for each other. Because the setter will only ever be in the back row, it means that there can be an extra hitter on the court.

Although it does mean a lot more time on the sidelines, Hammill said she and Ashburn don’t mind flying under the radar.

Ashburn averaged 6.15 assists per set with Hammill adding 4.29 last season. Combined, it would’ve been 10.44 assists per set, good enough for second in the conference last year behind Big Ten Setter of the Year Mac Podraza.

Sheffield said the two setters advocating for the 6-2 illustrates how “unique” the two are. Despite them being big-time competitors, one isn’t looking to “sabotage” the other. Instead, they’ve “embraced” their partnership.

“They work together really well, really empower each other at a special level,” Sheffield said. “They’re interested in helping each other be better.”

Hammill and Ashburn acknowledged running the system and spending moments in big matches on the sidelines is not always easy, but the benefits propel the team forward.

“You have to realize it will be a little bit more selfless, and you have to be ok with it,” Hammill said. “It gives you and the team so many more (attacking) options.”

“We’re not out here looking for individual plaudits, we’re looking for games to win. We’re looking for championships,” Ashburn said.

Ashburn also believes the split roles can help give different perspectives on how best to attack the opponent. When one player is on the court, the other is watching, seeing where they might be different gaps or sharing information about what they were seeing on the sidelines.

Hammill said that ability to communicate with her fellow setter — sometimes during timeouts, sometimes through instructions given to a different attacker subbing in — is really valuable to get the point of view of someone literally in the same position.

“It’s one thing to see it from the coach’s eye, but it’s another thing to feel it as a fellow setter,” Hammill said.

Both setters were eager to get the season started and had high expectations for this group. After a disappointing loss to Pitt in the Elite Eight last season, Ashburn said the veteran group is excited about this next journey.

Expectations are again high for a fifth straight conference title as the Badgers were voted the top team in the Big Ten by coaches in the preseason poll.

UW’s only major loss from last season was middle blocker Danielle Hart. New All-Big Ten transfers Temi Thomas-Ailara and Carter Booth join forces with Sarah Franklin, Devyn Robinson, Julia Orzoł, Anna Smrek, and Caroline Crawford for an even more loaded Badger attack.

UW’s dynamic setting duo will hope to continue as the team’s leaders through what will likely be another tough Big Ten season as Badger fans will hope an NCAA championship can again be in its sights.

But Hammill said the team isn’t motivating itself for “one big game.” She and Ashburn said they will aim to make sure the team revels in the journey.

“Every night we’re getting battle-tested, going to really difficult, really amazing environments to play in, playing against really good teams,” Hammill said. “You’re learning a lot about yourself along the way.”

The first test is two weeks away against No. 15 Baylor.