BY MIKE LUCAS UWBadgers.com Senior Writer MADISON, Wis. — W
BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
MADISON, Wis. — When the NCAA announced in mid-October that all winter sports athletes would be granted another year of eligibility, an action brought on by the pandemic, Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes began thinking about extending their stay with the Wisconsin volleyball program.
“As soon as we found out that it was an option, I didn’t know how I could pass up an opportunity to play another year and finish my master’s degree,” Hilley said. “I thought it was a perfect scenario and I’m really excited that some people have decided to stay with me.
“It’s amazing that I get another opportunity to train with the best coaches in the country — and to get better — and I have another opportunity to accomplish the goal that I came here with which was to win a national championship.”
She was spelling out the program’s mindset to chase titles. The Badgers have reached the NCAA finals and semifinals, respectively, the past two seasons. The back-to-back Final Fours were a first in school history. Moreover, they advanced to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in Hilley’s first two years on campus.
“Sydney and I were the ones that kind of decided almost point blank and talked to each other right from the beginning that we were going to stay,” said Barnes, who compiled a list of pros and cons on returning. “I had maybe one con — being in school longer. But everything else was a pro.”
Barnes, a transfer from Minnesota in 2019, will now pursue her master’s in analytics after picking up her undergraduate degree in finance and information systems during spring commencement. This past semester, Hilley started working towards her master’s in applied biotechnology. She wants to go into cancer research.
Hilley was a first-team All-American setter. Barnes was a second-team All-American libero.
“Having Barnes stay was a big key for me just because of how valuable she is to the team and the ball control,” said Hilley, this past year’s Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient. “Just to have her alongside of me in the battle is something we really wanted. We wanted another chance to win it all.”
Another year of eligibility sounded good to Grace Loberg last October, too.
“But I tried not to make a decision until after the season just because I wanted to focus on the current season and what was going on,” she said. “Who knows what could happen throughout the season? It was definitely a prominent thought in my head all along, though.”
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield endorsed and encouraged a deliberate approach.
“Hilley and Barnes had made it pretty clear that they were wanting to come back … so they were pretty locked in,” said Sheffield, who alerted the others to, “Slow down. This is going to be a crazy year. We don’t need to make decisions right now.’
“We really tried to delay people’s decisions until we got some separation from the season … everybody’s situation was going to be different … we really wanted to pump the brakes, which can be hard because it’s easier to go through when you have things planned.
“Right before the NCAA tournament (mid-April), Molly Haggerty came up to me and said, ‘I think this is going to be my last go-around. It’s been a great ride.’ Her and I sat down and talked about that. Molly had been here a long time. She was here on that 2016 team.”
Haggerty and Loberg have been roommates the last three years.
“Aside from being one of the most inspirational players to play with, she’s one of my best friends on the team,” Loberg said. “I was pretty updated on her thought process the whole time. It was pretty back and forth. She didn’t want to make a decision too early without considering all her options.”
Haggerty, who redshirted in 2017, decided not to come back for a sixth year.
“Knowing she’s not going to be here next year was honestly kind of sad,” Loberg said. “But at the same time, I understand that she’s going pro and she has already done her fifth year. The whole program is going to miss her a ton, but she’ll be doing great things on her own.”
Loberg, a first-team All-Big Ten outsider hitter, weighed the pros and cons like the others.
“Wisconsin is by far the best option,” she concluded for herself. “I just went through the thought process after the season ended. Honestly, staying at Wisconsin was hands-down the best decision for me just having the opportunity to come back and play hopefully in a full Field House.
“I feel to have a normal senior year also would be super awesome.”
Throughout the decision-making process for each of his players, Sheffield gave them space. He had gotten the word from some other coaches on how some high-profile programs were putting a lot of pressure on their kids to return. It was something Sheffield had no appetite for.
“The main thing for me was that I didn’t want to recruit our players,” he stressed. “There comes a time when it’s about the team and that’s throughout the season. Then there’s a time when it’s about the individual and this process should be a selfish and self-centered process.
“I’m not really sure you can say that you really care about that person when you’re just applying a whole bunch of pressure on them to come back. That may not be what is in their best interests. I made it clear, ‘Hey, I’d really love to have you back. But I want what is best for you and what you want.’
“We try to be a program that values the person.”
Of the eight seniors who had a choice, Hilley, Barnes, Loberg and libero/defensive specialist Giorgia Civita recommitted for another season. Haggerty, Nicole Shanahan (who transferred to Tennessee) and Deahna Kraft opted to move on. That left one undecided: middle blocker Dana Rettke.
“Obviously, I wanted Dana to stay because she’s such an amazing player and she’s one of my best friends,” Hilley said. “But I want ultimately what’s best for her. I love playing with Dana. I love living with Dana. I definitely gave her space and I told her that I’ll be happy for her no matter what.”
Rettke, Hilley, Barnes and Izzy Ashburn roomed together.
“We talked about what we were all thinking but I don’t think anybody’s decision was influencing one another,” Loberg said. “We all had different reasons and thoughts for why we would stay or why we wouldn’t stay, and we’d share them. But I don’t think that persuaded somebody one way or the other.”
While pondering her future, Rettke appreciated how her teammates handled the situation.
“They were fantastic, and I knew they were going to be fantastic no matter what because they’re my best friends,” she said. “They want what’s best for me and I want what’s best for them. There really wasn’t going to be a wrong answer really in that sense.
“They didn’t even get housing until I decided what I was going to do because they wanted to make sure that I would have a place to live with my teammates. They were extremely patient with me. It just really shows the type of people that I get to be around every single day. It’s such a pleasure.”
Sheffield met a handful of times with Rettke. They’ve had an on-going discussion for a year.
“Matter of fact, in our first two meetings, I told her that she should leave,” he confided. “I wasn’t pushing her or telling her what she should do. She certainly asked my thoughts, my feelings. But in our talks, I said, ‘It’s probably better for you to go.’ She was torn. It was back and forth for a while.”
Make no mistake about Sheffield’s intentions.
“I really tried to give her space to go through the process that she needed,” he said. “I had a tough time saying, ‘I care about you … but I want you to do what is best for you. But if coming back is what you want and you feel like it’s what is best for you, then, man, I’m so fired up about it.’
“I’d love to coach Dana again. I’d love to coach all these guys again. We’re better with them.”
How did Rettke handle Sheffield’s early advice?
“My response to Kelly was, ‘I just need to think it out, I just need to think it through, and I needed to see if it was the best option for me’ and that’s exactly what I did,” said Rettke, who revealed last week that she would be returning for another season.
“It’s definitely a little bit of a relief now. It was a stressful decision just because no one has ever been in that position before. It’s usually you’re done with college, and you move on. I was in this space where I could choose and that was really exciting.
“I gathered all the information I could, and I wanted to make sure that I was making a good decision. Part of me was, ‘I can go and play pro now … but … I have this opportunity to stay at Wisconsin in front of me …’ I was grateful for how everyone handled the situation. They gave me my space.”
Sheffield was energized by Rettke’s decision.
“Man, I know that kid is driven right now,” he said. “The other day when she called to tell me that she was coming back, there was a spark to her. You could tell that she’s gearing up. You could feel that energy coming through the phone.”
On what she was feeling after their conversation, Rettke confirmed, “Once I finally made that decision, there was that spark, that fire. I think we can pull out some really great things out of this team that I don’t think we were able to last year because of the circumstances.”
COVID circumstances. Testing. Protocols. Quarantines. Social distancing. Match cancelations.
“It was definitely not easy,” Rettke admitted. “It has just been such a learning process, a big adaptation drill, because we were just really having to go with the flow. We had to adapt, we had to adjust, and we had to find a way to come together.”
After the fall schedule was wiped out, the Badgers finally wound up taking the court on Jan. 22. As it was, they competed in just 14 regular-season matches (nine were canceled or forfeited). At one point, they played only three times in a 52-day span; not once between Feb. 21 and March 21.
“Challenging is the best word to describe it,” Barnes said. “It was a heck of a year. It was a tough year. But I’m really proud of my team for how we handled it … we stuck with it, we prepared at all times, and we prepared like we were going to play every single weekend and that really showed.
“Our mentality towards practice was really a key to our success. We came in to get better every single day regardless if we were going to have an opponent on the other side of the net.”
Entering the Final Four, the Badgers were the only undefeated team (16-0) left in the nation.
“It was definitely crazy, but I think it brought us all closer together and made us approach the sport and each other that much more,” Hilley said. “Part of wanting to come back is because I want a normal year to go out on — to have all the fans in the Field House and play all of our matches.”
Added Loberg, “I feel like our team is all very mentally strong and we were able to push through that (the stops and starts). I’m excited to hopefully have a regular season where we can enjoy the entire volleyball environment and we can have fans supporting us. I’m hoping it can get back to that.”
Sheffield is on the same wavelength.
“I think every single one of these guys wants to get back and play in front of a packed Field House — that’s a driving motivator,” he said. “A very big part of this is coming in here and hearing the roar of the Field House, the smell of the popcorn and the band playing. That’s big on everyone’s mind.”
Especially the younger players who have yet to get a taste of the home atmosphere.
“I definitely feel for the freshmen,” Loberg said. “Because just as we were all going through something completely different, they didn’t even know that they were going through something completely different. Honestly, they haven’t gotten to experience college at all.”
Sheffield pointed out that the underclassmen can also extend their eligibility clock.
“All of them that were here get an extra year, it’s not just the older players, which is just incredible,” he said. “My wife Cathy was a scholarship athlete (Villanova and Virginia) and we’re still paying her grad school. Now basically all these guys just got grad school paid for. An unbelievable deal.
“We’re really excited about our young players. Devyn Robinson was in the rotation all year and she had a great freshman season. Jade Demps got some playing time and I’m really excited about her future. The young talent is going to be pushing and challenging the players that have been here.”
That core group of returning seniors, he acknowledged, is incredibly accomplished.
“But I’m not going to coach them any differently,” Sheffield promised.
The players wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Our goals don’t change — we want to win a national championship, we want to win a Big Ten championship,” Rettke said. “Those goals stay consistent throughout the years. I don’t really know if expectations are different. To us, they’re the same every year.”
As a team, the Badgers will not officially reassemble until after the July 4th weekend.
“If we could start the season tomorrow,” Barnes vowed, “I would. I’m just ready to go.”
She was not alone in that thought.
“There’s definitely stuff left on the table, and this is our opportunity to prove it and kind of show the world we’re ready to go,” said Rettke, who’s on track to become an unprecedented five-time, first-team All-American. “I haven’t thought too much about the individual accolades.
“To me, it’s always about the team. It’s always about the team accomplishments. I want to win the first national championship for Wisconsin ever. That really excites me.”
She was not alone in that thought, either.