It’s not uncommon for a star high school athlete to switch her position to join a collegiate team. But it’s not every day a player can jump that hurdle and become a star player in her new position.
Annemarie Hickey did just that.
The Wisconsin volleyball team’s junior libero earned her first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week accolades after notching a season-high 30 digs against Illinois and 24 against Northwestern last weekend.
Hickey said the award has been a personal goal this season, and achieving it has only fueled her to play at an even higher level.
“Obviously I was pretty excited,” Hickey said. “It’s always been one of my goals for the whole entire year. I think more than anything, it just gives me more motivation to come back out this week in practice and this weekend’s game to do better, get more digs than I have and keep doing everything I can for my team.”
Hickey leads the Big Ten in digs with 4.86 per set and ranks fifth in the conference in service aces. She has recorded 10 or more digs in all but two matches this season and has posted 20 digs in five matches.
Head coach Pete Waite said Hickey’s success is due to her ability to control the ball and give her team opportunities to score.
“She’s really digging a ton of balls, and it’s in great control too, and that’s the important thing,” Waite said. “A lot of people dig balls, but she’s allowing us to run our offense and score right out of that.”
Junior outside hitter Julie Mikaelsen said she has been impressed with Hickey’s knack for saving difficult balls.
“If one ball goes on the ground, she [says] all right, next ball,” Mikaelsen said. “She’s really focused on getting the ball up. She gets a lot of balls up — balls you wouldn’t think would get up, she just picks it up. She’s just an amazing player.”
Hickey wasn’t always saving balls in the back row, though. She was named 2009 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year as an outside hitter, leading her team to a second straight state title.
The 5-foot-8 Hickey made the switch to defense when she joined the Badgers because of her shorter stature for an offensive player.
“I could have went to lower D1 schools and hit with my height, but I wanted more than anything to be in a good conference and on a good team,” Hickey said. “Even if that meant changing my role, it’s completely fine. I’ve had to make a lot of changes, and I love what I’m doing now, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Hickey had options heading into college — she grew up as a three-sport athlete, playing basketball, softball and volleyball. In choosing volleyball, she understood how difficult a transition she was going to make.
“It was hard and I did get frustrated a lot of the time, but in the back of my head, I was thinking I have a goal, this is what I want to do, this is what my team needs from me,” Hickey said.
While Hickey was forced to give up her position on offense coming to Wisconsin, she is able to use her experience to her advantage. She explained playing on both sides of the ball helps her understand her opponents’ attacks.
“Being an outside hitter to now being a defender really helps me because I’m able to read those types of hitters,” Hickey said. “I’m able to read what they want to do, if they’re going to hit a ball or then roll a shot — I know that because I used to do that.”
In addition to leading her team as a defensive superstar, Hickey has acted as a mentor for less experienced players in the back row. Sophomore defensive specialist Deme Morales has seen increased playing time this season, and Mikaelsen has transitioned from front-row attacker to back-row stopper — a transition with which Hickey is familiar.
Mikaelsen said Hickey has given her unconditional support, even when she makes mistakes.
“She really helped me a lot feeling comfortable and safe in the back row,” Mikaelsen said. “If I don’t make a dig, she’s like, ‘I know you can make that dig.’ She builds my confidence.“
Waite said Hickey has matured as both a player and a person since coming to Wisconsin. He said by improving her game, Hickey has been able to lead the other defensive players.
“I think they look up to her as a player,” Waite said. “I know she’s a real leader on the court; she’s kind of a court general for us in the back row.”