For sophomore setter Lauren Carlini, it will be rather difficult to top her freshman year in Madison. The anchor of the Wisconsin volleyball team established herself as a leader and integral part of the team in her first year, and she played a pivotal role in the Badgers’ postseason run and appearance in the National Title game.

Carlini facilitated the offense for the Badgers as the only freshman of the Top 25-ranked teams nationally to serve as the primary setter. She averaged 11.5 assists per game, good enough for third in the Big Ten and 31st in the country.

“I’m not concerned with my numbers though,” Carlini said. “I like looking at my teammates’ stats better because I like to see what their hitting [percentages are] and who I should be feeding the ball to more.”

She was also active on defense, finishing second on UW with 2.82 digs per set. Lauren recorded double-digit digs in 22 matches, and led Wisconsin in double-doubles with 22.

Those numbers earned her 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, the third Badger ever to claim the award. She was also the first Badger to be named to the All-Big Ten team in six years.

It didn’t stop there for Carlini, who managed to elevate her game come postseason time.

Her performance in the regional round earned her Champaign Regional Most Valuable Player honors. After a heartbreaking defeat to rival Penn State in the National Championship Game, Carlini earned all-tournament and all-American honors.

Following a monstrous 2013 campaign, expectations for the Aurora, Illinois, native are high during the 2014 season. She is used to dealing with lofty expectations and exceeding them. For example, she was named the National Gatorade Player of the Year after her senior year of high school, then came to Madison and failed to disappoint.

“She’s the kind of player who is always looking to make herself and her teammates better,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “That’s just the kind of kid she is.”

So what did Carlini do to take her game to the next level?

She spent three weeks of her summer training with the U.S. Women’s National Team, one of only two collegiate players selected to do so.

“I’m really glad I got to have this experience at such a young age and start my dreams early,” Carlini said. “I would listen to their stories and what they had to say and see what work I’d have to go through because they are where I want to be in a few years. It was great to make some connections.”

Carlini not only improved as a player, but as a teammate as well, she said.

“I did a lot of observing,” she said. “I took things and ideas away from it as far as leadership goes and communicating.”

Those are valuable intangibles that Carlini must command as the floor general of a mobile offense and synchronized attack.

The biggest challenge for Carlini at that level was the speed of the game. However, when she returned to training with her teammates, games seemed a lot slower, “which can really help me set up the attack,” Carlini said.

“It could go one of two ways for a player,” Sheffield said. “She can either get her confidence shaken up by the caliber of play, or she can use it as a learning tool. I think she put her head down and got through it and left a better player.”

The Badgers will experience a bit of a role reversal entering the 2014 season, because the target is now on their backs, which Carlini said is just something the team has to deal with.

Sheffield said his team will have to adjust to that role, and would like to see his team string together quality wins in Big Ten play.

But Carlini, the feisty leader of a “Why not us?” crew, had a much more clear goal in her mind, and just like her expectations and her level of play, she reached for the sky:

“It would be a huge disappointment and failure if we didn’t win a national title and a Big Ten championship.”