While pre-season All-American seniors Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson are the cornerstone for the squad’s initial dominance, freshman Molly Haggerty is making waves on a predominantly upperclassman team.
“Having six or seven freshman coming in last year made it really hard to get everyone on the same page,” Carilini said. “The freshmen this year have done a really good job of riding our coattails and going along with a lot of what we’re doing already. It’s been a really fun group to work with.”
Haggerty, a true-freshman outside hitter, is certainly no stranger to the limelight. The Glen Ellyn, Illinois native led St. Francis High School to four straight state championships, and earned Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year both her junior and senior seasons, as well as being named AVCA First Team All American her senior year. Haggerty continued to build on her success in the offseason, winning all four high school AAU championships and, most recently, helped SPRI win the 2016 AAU World Championships in the Dominican Republic.
Wisconsin’s opener against Hawaii at the Rainbow Wahine Invitational included a 3-1 win over sixth-ranked Hawaii and two 3-0 wins over Arizona and Kansas State. Haggerty started all three as outside hitter and recorded a double-double against Hawaii with 19 kills and 16 digs. She also lead the team with 14 kills and a 0.609 hitting percentage against Arizona.
The electric performance was enough to be named the first Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the 2016 season, and keep her in the starting lineup for the rest of the week. The opening weekend put her at No. 55 in the national rankings and third in the Big Ten with an average of 4.20 kills per set.
“What I really love about the freshmen this season is the mindset they came into the season with,” Nelson said. “I think that shows on the court with Molly’s play. She’s able to fit into the culture right away because her, and the others, are so willing to learning and coaching.”
Despite the eleven returning contributors on the team, Haggerty and the other freshman are stepping in at a perfect time for the Badgers. Her promising play as an outside hitter has allowed head coach Kelly Sheffield to rest other key players for one of the tougher schedules he has seen in his 16-year tenure in Madison.
“I think we have more depth this year than we’ve had since I’ve been here, but its needed,” Sheffield said. “It’s something that we try to develop within this program and I think we’re ultimately heading in that direction.”
The Badgers are set to play twenty opponents ranked in the preseason poll this year, and three top-10 opponents that include rivals No. 1 Nebraska and No. 5 Minnesota. Even with the returning experience in leadership positions, depth strength will be imperative to navigating the team’s high-caliber Big Ten schedule and making another run to the NCAA title game.
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“Ever since we went to the national championship back in 2013, we’re really used to playing with a target on our back,” Nelson said. “When I came in my freshman year, we weren’t even ranked. The younger players have only played with those high expectations.”
The No. 6 Badgers, who were ranked No.2 before losing to University of North Carolina, tied for the highest ranking in program history, and is a promising sign that the program might return to championship glory as early as this season. While Sheffield is confident that his team itself doesn’t entertain the hype, the fans have responded accordingly. With 3,027 tickets sold after only the second weekend, this season marks the first time in school history that Wisconsin volleyball season ticket sales have surpassed 3,000.
“Other teams might look at that No. 2-ranking and make some meaning of it, but it only really matters what we think and the standard we hold ourselves to,” Nelson said. “We hold ourselves to a number one standard and we just keep that in the back of our minds wherever we’re ranked.”
The Badgers are now in the thick of one of their more grueling schedules in recent memory, but seem more prepared than ever before.