A season ago, the Wisconsin volleyball team reached the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament before their neighbor to the south, the Illinois Fighting Illini, ended their chance at a national title.

The future seemed bright, however. The Badgers lost only one starter in middle blocker Tionna Williams and returned their three All-Americans from a year ago.

Then the Badgers suffered their worst start to a season in nearly 30 years. With a brutal non-conference slate, UW stumbled to a 4–4 record before Big Ten play started and hadn’t registered a home win.

They couldn’t finish sets. They lacked a defensive presence both at the net and in the back row. They relied too heavily on two-time All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke.

Their reward for that poor play? Facing a stretch of five ranked teams in their next seven games.

The now-No. 7 Badgers won every one of those ranked contests and have just one loss in Big Ten play. Their 12-0 start to Big Ten play was the first such streak in program history, and they now stand at 13-1 in the Big Ten.

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Their play in all three phases of the game has improved dramatically and three unexpected players have helped spark that turnaround: freshman Izzy Ashburn, junior transfer from Minnesota Lauren Barnes and redshirt sophomore Danielle Hart.

Ashburn, a high school teammate of current setter Sydney Hilley, makes her impact at the service line. She currently leads all Power 5 conferences in aces per set with 0.54 and has recorded a service ace in the last seven matches.

Her 37 service aces are already the third-highest mark in Badger history during the 25-point rally scoring era. Former Badger and Team USA setter Lauren Carlini has the top mark with 45 service aces.

Both Ashburn (0.54) and Rettke (0.40) would top Carlini for the highest aces per set mark if they can sustain their current averages.

Head Coach Kelly Sheffield raved about her serve early in the season.

“Her serve is awfully good,” Sheffield said. “She goes back there with confidence and puts some pace on it and gets that ball to dance.”

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Lauren Barnes has also succeeded in the serving game, but her greatest asset is flying around the back row. Barnes complements Clark as almost a second libero with defensive specialist Sarah Dodd suffering a season-ending injury before the season began.

Barnes brings over a lot of experience from her time as a Gopher. She played in every match the past two seasons at Minnesota and has settled into her role as a Badger nicely.

Rettke, a club teammate of Barnes in high school, welcomes the energy she brings to the Badger defense.

“I’ve known Barnes for a long time,” Rettke said. “She’s just a really fiery, go-getter. She brings her 100% effort to every single practice, every single game. You know if she’s upset, for sure, but it comes from a place of love and a place of wanting to be the best and wanting to play for the best. She’s awesome.”

Against Maryland, Barnes recorded a season-high and game-high 15 digs and even a couple assists from the back row.

She even recorded her first career kill against Indiana Sunday.

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Lastly, middle blocker Hart has recovered from a slow start to the season and has forced opponents to worry even when Rettke is off the court.

In the first 10 games of the season, Hart was hitting .224 with only 1.4 kills per set. In the last 10 games, the Virginia Beach native is hitting .386 with 2.03 kills per set.

Hart’s best games seem to come against top-tier opponents. Her finest performance came against then-No. 2 Nebraska where Hart rattled off a career-high 10 kills on just 14 swings.

In the Badgers’ five-set thriller with Illinois, Hart totaled 11 blocks – the highest mark of any Badger this season.

She has vastly improved her defensive prowess at the net. In Big Ten play, Hart is currently eighth in the conference with 1.17 blocks per set.

“Our blockers have gotten a lot better, especially Danielle,” Sheffield said. “Her blocking moves are a lot cleaner. She’s reading a whole lot better.”

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These three unsuspecting players had relatively no impact on last season (Hart played minimally last season); however, their impact on the various phases of the game has kept the Badgers in crucial matches along this historic 12-game winning streak.

They don’t earn top billing in the conference like the duo of Hilley and Rettke, but their complementary contributions could lead to the ultimate goal – a national championship. A goal that has ruminated in their minds since the Fighting Illini ended that chance last year.