She had a tremendous career at Illinois, one that included an NCAA championship-match appearance her senior year in 2011 that capped a four-year stint in which she was a Volleyball Magazine All-American, led the Illini to four NCAA Tournament rounds of 16 or better and four second-place finishes in the Big Ten.
Pretty heady stuff in the world of college volleyball, but Michelle Bartsch was hardly anyone you expected seven years later to be the key offensive cog in the USA national team offense.
But here she is, the 6-foot-3 outside-hitting kill machine, celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary to Corbin Hackley this past Friday, the same day she and her USA team headed to China for the Volleyball Nations League final six.
“Bartschy has been a force, and that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows her game,” USA women’s coach Karch Kiraly said. “She has a big arm, and when she is playing around other strong players … she has a real chance to shine. She is doing a great job and contributing in lots of areas, including being very efficient at the service line.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” Bartsch-Hackley said last week in the national-team training center in Anaheim. “I think that I’ve been here in training and not making the major rosters for a long time, but I think that’s what was meant to be.
“I think at Illinois I had a good career there, but international is completely different than college, and I took time off after Illinois and I coached for a little bit. Working as a coach gave me a completely different perspective.”
So the product of Maryville, Ill., just east of St. Louis (From the Illinois media guide during her career: My hometown has the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle), built her pro career one step at a time. Not that she hadn’t been on the USA/international stage. While in high school — where she also was a good basketball player — Bartsch-Hackley was a middle on the USA junior national team that won the 2008 NORCECA gold medal. As a junior at Illinois, she played for the USA A2 team.
After college she started out in Germany. Now she’s moving from Busto Arsizio to Italy Champions League winner Novara.
“So each year keeps getting better and better,” she understated. “Getting the exposure each year has been good to grow my game.”
That hasn’t been lost on Kiraly.
“She’s been doing some nice things in our gym for a few years, but we only took three outside hitters (in 2016) to Rio with us, but she has continued developing,” Kiraly said.
“She had a nice season with us last year, was one of our starting outsides all through Grand Prix, and now has worked her way into the mix. She’s playing really solid volleyball along with Jordan (Larson) and with Kim (Hill).
No doubt, Kiraly, said, playing with the core group has made Bartsch-Hackley better.
“In last year’s Grand Prix, she wasn’t playing with Jordan or Kim. Or Kelsey (Robinson) or Rachael (Adams) or Foluke (Akinradewo). We had some people taking some rest, which is customary in the first year of a quad. And then we had a quick tournament at the end, but it wasn’t a great chance for Michelle to play with this group. As she’s played with them more, in particular this year, she’s had a tone of chances to play and train with everybody, she’s earned a lot of trust with her teammates, which I think has also helped her build trust and confidence in herself.”
Bartsch-Hackley’s contributions helped the USA to a 13-2 record, 40-point finish in the preliminary round of Volleyball Nations League, 3 points ahead of second-place Serbia.
“I played my first three seasons in Germany (one season at Bils Bug and two at Dresden). I think I’ve been really lucky with those experiences, because Germany is pretty similar to America, it’s not much different, everyone speaks English, and my coaches are great and always spoke English.
“I was really lucky starting out at a lower level, because of that I had a better experience.”
USA teammates Carli Lloyd and Lauren Gibbemeyer are Italian veterans. Lauren Carlini, back to Italy for her second year, also signed with Novara.
“I’m learning a bit of Italian, but compared to someone like Carli Lloyd and Gibby, both of them are fluent because they’ve been in Italy for six seasons,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “This will be my third season in Italy. My Italian is terrible. I’m getting better, this season the practice was all in Italian, so I had to understand, I can understand volleyball Italian. Food, I can order meals at dinner, and that’s about it. The survival skills.”
One of her teammates last season at Busto Arsizio was Sarah Wilhite, the former Big Ten player of the year for Minnesota (Wilhite was replaced on the 14-player roster for China with Madi Kingdon Rishel).
“She’s a very experienced player, so it’s really natural to feel comfortable next to her,” Wilhite said. “She’s confident, and she carries herself in a way that tells you that she knows what she’s doing, and as a younger player, that’s something to look up to, and that’s something I hope to be in the future as the years go on.”
They spent a lot of time together in Italy off the court.
“We rode together almost every day on the way to practice, and I hurt myself and she was kind of a mom to me, took care of me, and was awesome to be around. She was super-welcoming.”
Now the team goes to Nanjing, China and starts in a three-team pool where it faces Turkey on Wednesday and Serbia on Friday. The Americans are 13-2, but those losses were to Turkey and Serbia, so a major challenge awaits in a tournament that began May 15.
“It’s been a new journey for everyone. It’s really long. It’s been a lot of fun, we’ve gotten a lot closer in the past five weeks, and we’re excited to be home now and refresh and go back to the finals,” Bartsch-Hackley said..
“It’s not the ideal circumstance, but we’ve been to China, we know how to survive in China, we know what to do, what to eat, and how to compete there. I think we’re used to China, and I think a lot of the other teams don’t spend a lot of time in Asia, so we’re excited to go back.
“We’ve been figuring out our team culture as we go along, we were returning from our overseas seasons one by one, and Gibby, and Kelsey, and Jordan, and a few others, we were literally here two days before we left for Nebraska (May 15-17), so we’re kind of still figuring each other out and enjoying playing volleyball together. We’re on the road and trying to figure out what it is.”
And in the case of outside hitter, that includes Bartsch-Hackley, Larson and Hill.
“We have a nice rotation of outsides, all three of them have been doing a really effective job for us, and so we’re lucky to be able to play some different lineups and not have to rely on the same two outside hitters in the course of any three matches in a row,” Kiraly said.
“Each of them, including Michelle, have different strengths and weaknesses, so they can change the makeup of our team a little when they come onto the court.”