Molly Haggerty, who questioned if it was time to give up the sport, is back.
In a big way.
She can feel her legs — no small thing — is back to crushing volleyballs, and, as Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said, “She’s having a blast on the court, she’s playing hard, she’s playing well and certainly makes her team better.”
Which is a far cry from that night on October 28, 2016.
Wisconsin was playing host to Penn State. The Field House was, as usual, sold out and rocking.
But during that match, Haggerty suddenly realized something was wrong.
“My legs were going numb,” Haggerty recalled. “My knee was hurting me earlier in the match, but then when my leg started going numb, that’s when we knew something was wrong.”
At the time, Wisconsin was ranked No. 4 and Haggerty, a 6-foot-1 freshman having a remarkable season, had 16 kills in the four-set victory, adding an ace, four assists, two blocks on nine digs.
But, as it turned out, there was nothing wrong with her leg. An MRI showed a herniated disk.
“My back actually never really hurt,” Haggerty said. “It was more in my leg and in my butt that I felt it a lot.”
Haggerty, Wisconsin’s go-to outside hitter despite being a freshman, wasn’t going to shut it down, however.
Even though she grinded, the product of the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn played till the end of the season. That included nine more Big Ten matches and four in the NCAA Tournament, the last an epic five-set loss to eventual national-champion Stanford.
“As an outside hitter the team counted on me so much in every single match and knew I wasn’t going to sit out any of those games,” said Haggerty, who finished 2016 leading Wisconsin at 3.41 kills per set. “I wanted to push through the pain to be that player for the team. Honestly, it showed in the Stanford match how much pain I was in. I wasn’t able to move like I could earlier in the season.”
By then, Haggerty was going all she could to hold it together. She finished that match with eight kills after hitting .121, and even though she had 15 digs, four assists and a block, the first priority was scheduling back surgery.
“I was really, really nervous,” Haggerty admitted.
That was in January, things went well with an eye on returning in 2017, but then, although taking it slowly on the road back, re-herniated her disk.
She said her doctors told her it could have been anything that caused it, “that my back was so bad that I could have literally just sneezed or coughed and re-herniated it because it was so bad.”
All of which is hard to imagine that such a strong athlete, who hit the ball so hard and moved so well, could go through that.
“I never thought in a million years I would have had back surgery. I would have thought maybe shoulder or knee, but never back. I never had any injuries before.”
Despite all that, there was a time in 2017 when Haggerty could have come back, but all involved agreed it was better for her to take the medical redshirt and come back at full strength in 2018.
“I never had an injury like this. I had an ankle sprain and was out for like two weeks and I was miserable,” Haggerty said. “So sitting out was super, super hard to handle and I didn’t handle it well at all.
“I thought I was going to come back a lot faster than I did and for me not to was very hard to handle. Getting through all this I learned a lot about myself.”
“I started to question if I wanted to play after college and not having volleyball for as long as I did really made me realize that I do. It’s my No. 1 passion and I felt lost without it.
“Right now I’m proud that I fought through those challenges. It could have been really easy for me to say that maybe it’s time for me to give up the sport — it did cross my mind — but I’m just happy that I stuck through it and finally got past those challenges.
“Because now I’m playing with a wonderful team.”
“I knew it was the best thing,” Haggerty said, but admitted it was hard to sit out and even questioned if it was worth coming back.
“Once I started getting confidence in my volleyball ability and started getting stronger I really bought into the idea that redshirting was a a great idea. And I am thrilled that I redshirted.”
So are her teammates.
“It’s so nice to have Molly back on the court,” sophomore setter Sydney Hilley said. “Her passion and love for the game shines in the way she plays and carries herself.
“Not only is she a great attacker and another weapon for me to use, but she also has such a big presence on the court and demands the ball which is the mentality you want your hitters to have. Her ball control and all around game are so consistent that it steadies the team and everybody trusts she’s going to do her job.”
As second-ranked Wisconsin heads to No. 15 Baylor on Friday night before playing at North Texas on Saturday afternoon, Haggerty couldn’t be better.
“I’m feeling great,” she said. “My body, my confidence, everything is doing really good. I’m feeling really good.”
Already this season, the Badgers have swept North Carolina and beaten Florida State at Minnesota to open this season, then last weekend at home, while ranked eighth, upset then-No. 2 Texas in four before beating High Point.
Against UNC, Haggerty had six kills in 20 swings with no errors an ace and three digs.
She heated up against FSU with 10 kills in 30 swings with one error, had two assists and 10 more digs.
Against Texas it was obvious Haggerty was back: She had 16 kills, hit .324, had five assists, 15 digs and three blocks.
“She’s a competitor, she’s a baller, and does everything pretty well,” Sheffield said. “And she wants to work hard on her game. She wants to be great.”
And then against High Point, she had 10 more kills, two more assists, a block and four digs.
“I love where she’s at right now, but I love more the direction in which she’s going,” Sheffield said.
Haggerty, a product of St. Francis High School who played for Sports Performance, is second only to middle Dana Rettke (43 kills) with 42 kills. She’s averaging 2.8 kills per set, and hitting .270.
“She’s just four matches into her sophomore year with so much volleyball ahead of her,” Sheffield said. “We’re excited about what she can become.”
“She brings a lot of energy,” said the 6-foot-8 Rettke, last year’s VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year.
Rettke leads the team with 43 kills, 2.87 per set, and has 24 blocks. The other outside, sophomore Grace Loberg, has 41 kills and is averaging a team-best 3.73 per set.
“I know how hard she worked and all the ups and downs and the struggles and the good days to get back where she is, and we’re all so excited to see her back in her prime,” Rettke said.
Her prime was pretty good. Had Haggerty not been slowed in 2016, it’s likely she, too, would have been VBM’s national freshman of the year.
Haggerty says she’s close but not all the way back to where she was.
“I’m always hard on myself, but I’m almost there and getting very close,” she said. “It was in the summer that I really started getting into the groove of things. I was getting a lot of my strength back because finally I could lift with the team. I was doing a lot of other stuff on my own. So I wasn’t getting strong because I couldn’t do any lifting.”
Getting her first kill of the season, which was late in that first match of the year against UNC, didn’t register as anything significant.
“It kind of felt like just volleyball, but when I got my first kill at the Field House, it really brought me back. Hearing the crowd and hearing your name, it really brought me back to my freshman year and really excited me and made me take everything in.
“It really made me appreciate everything that I had to go through and I’m super, super glad that I stayed with the challenge and kept fighting. That feeling of hearing the crowd was amazing.”
Rettke admitted that Wisconsin was missing something last year and said that Haggerty fills that gap.
“We have all the pieces we could possibly need,” Rettke said. “We have really great outside hitters who put balls down in every situation. We have the team chemistry to do it, we have the drive, we really have all the pieces we need to win a national championship this year and we’re going to make a great run for it.”
All of which fires up Haggerty.
“We have so many different weapons on our team and so many options. We all know on our club teams we’re the No. 1 option and go-to player, but everybody on our team right now, we’re all go-to hitters. For Sydney to have so many options, for teams not to know who to scout or try to shut down is obviously good for us.”