Wisconsin’s Maria Carlini is quite candid when reflecting on her first season of collegiate volleyball.

“Last year I couldn’t hit at all,” the sophomore outside hitter said with a laugh.

That is certainly not the case this season, as Carlini has moved into the UW starting lineup thanks to an improved swing and has provided an immediate shot in the arm to the Badger attack.

“During the spring season, that’s when we work every day on our weaknesses,” Carlini said. “I worked so hard on hitting and even blocking. My blocking still has to come around a bit more. My hitting definitely improved tremendously from last year.”

Thanks to her improved offensive game, Carlini has quickly gone from reserve spark-plug to starting outside hitter. After a strong performance off the bench against Northwestern, the sophomore from LaSalle, Ontario has started three consecutive matches for the Badgers. In those three starts, she is averaging 4.30 kills per game and is hitting at a .303 clip.

“Maria’s really been coming on,” head coach Pete Waite said. “Our left-side hitters were struggling with their hitting percentages and we gave Maria a shot. All last season, she came in and always boosted our team with her blocking and her hitting. She gets better with each match, her confidence keeps going up and up. We’re excited about that.”

Against Illinois — her first career start at outside hitter — Carlini set a new career high in kills with 13. She continued to shine last weekend, recording another 13 kills against No. 3 Minnesota and then hammering 17 kills against Iowa.

“I was really proud of my hitting game, but there are still a lot of things I need to work on,” Carlini said. “It was all in the setters. The setters gave me perfect balls and I had to put them down. I thought the setters did a really good job this weekend.”

That left-side hitter position is still relatively new to Carlini, who came to Wisconsin a middle blocker. After starting six matches at the position, she was replaced by Amy Bladow in the starting lineup and took on the role of top reserve and saw time at all three front row positions. In spring practices, the coaching staff liked what they saw from the 6-foot-2 Carlini and moved her to the left side.

“I was always a middle blocker, but at my high school I played everywhere,” Carlini said. “It was just set Maria time. There’s three different hitters — three totally different positions and three totally different ways of hitting. I think playing as a middle helped out with seeing the block. I’m still learning the left-side position — I haven’t mastered it at all. I’m just trying to work hard every day in practice to get a lot of reps in.”

As a freshman, Carlini was able to learn from veterans like Morgan Shields and Lisa Zukowski. Now she finds herself in the position of giving advice to the seven freshmen on Wisconsin’s 2004 roster.

“I used to focus on my mistakes all the time and even now I tend to do that sometimes,” Carlini said. “They just taught me to just go up and swing. Go up and be aggressive. When you’re timid, that’s when you make most of your mistakes. You have to be aggressive and go out and just have fun — that’s the main thing. I come to practice and just have so much fun.”

Carlini’s perpetually-positive approach to practice, matches and life in general has served her well, both as a reserve and now in her new role as a starter. Greeting nearly every situation with a smile, her attitude is contagious on the court.

“Last year as a freshman, she would always come off the bench and give us a spark because she’s really upbeat and gets very excited on the court,” Waite said. “This year as a starter, what we’ve seen is much of the same thing. She really shows a lot of personality out there. I think her teammates really enjoy how lively she makes things and they want to play hard for her.”

With a year of college under her belt, is enjoying herself even more in her sophomore campaign. Awestruck at times as a freshman, Carlini has now settled into college life.

“It’s huuuuuuge,” Carlini said of the difference between being a freshman and a sophomore. “Me being Canadian, I was just so overwhelmed by the U.S. and how much support U.S. athletics get at the college level. I feel just so much more comfortable here.”

That comfort level is quite obvious on the court. When the Badgers return to action against Indiana Friday, Carlini will once again be taking bigger swings with an even bigger smile.