Eight games into the season, the University of Wisconsin volleyball team (27-7, 18-2) was coming off consecutive losses to then-No. 10 Washington Huskies and sat at 4-4 with the grueling Big Ten schedule ahead.
The Badgers responded with one of the greatest seasons in UW volleyball history. Reaching the national championship for the third time in program history, Wisconsin fell yet again on the highest stage.
UW ripped through conference play, winning the Big Ten with an 18-2 record and seven wins over ranked conference opponents.
After the subpar start to the year, head coach Kelly Sheffield showed signs of optimism, not worry.
“It’s exciting,” Sheffield said. “Big Ten volleyball is nasty, and this year in our sport, teams are just beating up on each other. From a record standpoint, it probably hasn’t been as good as what most of us are wanting, but it’s been entertaining, high-level stuff in the Field House.”
Such optimism powered this team late in sets, late in matches and late in the season. Numerous players stepped up in crucial moments against quality opponents like Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Badgers in the Big Ten championship against the Stanford Cardinal. The senior core of the Cardinal upended the hopes of another great Badger team a few seasons prior. Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray and Audriana Fitzmorris dashed any national championship hopes of the Lauren Carlini-led Badgers in 2016.
That core finished their collegiate careers winning three national championships in four years.
“It almost feels like it [Stanford’s four-year run] got started against us a few years ago,” Sheffield said. “They’ve had their foot on the gas pedal ever since. We’re a really good team and they plowed right through us.”
Volleyball: Badgers win Big Ten championship outright with help from GophersAspirations were high for the Wisconsin volleyball team this year. They returned three All-Americans in Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley and Read…
While a national championship was the goal, this Badger team finished the year breaking records and showing some definite promise for next year.
Freshman Izzy Ashburn set the Badger record for service aces (47) and service aces per set (0.41) in 25-point rally scoring. Carlini previously held both of those records, set in 2014.
No other conference opponent had ever swept Nebraska twice in one season – the Badgers did it three times.
Dana Rettke earned her third AVCA First-Team All-American nod. That matches Carlini’s Badger record of three AVCA first-team honors. Another first-team selection next season would put Rettke in supreme company. Only five players in NCAA history have received four AVCA first-team selections.
UW’s historic season came to an end in the form of a sweep to a historic group at Stanford. However, numerous members of the Badger team said that any loss in the championship hurts, regardless of the nature of the defeat.
“I hate losing,” outside hitter Molly Haggerty said. “Whether we got swept, or lost in five, it doesn’t really feel any different.”
To make a repeat effort next season, the team will need to fill the holes left by seniors Tiffany Clark, Madison Duello and M.E. Dodge.
Clark captained the back row as libero and Duello has been a steady right side hitter. Both have started the majority of the last three years. Duello received AVCA third-team honors a year ago.
Looking forward to next season might be a little early, but setter Sydney Hilley and company will milk this loss for all the motivation possible.
“I think it’s going to drive us every day,” Hilley said. “We’re not going to forget this feeling for a long time. I know we can get back here, just got to keep working hard.”