When Wisconsin freshman middle blocker Dana Rettke was competing in volleyball for the first time at 15, a decision was made for her.
Rettke, a product of Riverside-Brookfield High School, was playing both AAU basketball and club volleyball in suburban Chicago.
A trip to an open gym at the University of Illinois ended up changing the course of her athletic career.
“I had played basketball for as long as I could remember,” Rettke said. “When I was at that open gym I learned basketball was not what I was meant to do. I knew I would have problems muscling up to kids who are a lot bigger than me. I knew it was not for me anymore and I made the switch that day.”
It certainly seems to have been the right move. The 6-foot-8 Rettke is the 2017 VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year. It comes on the heels of her also being named the AVCA national freshman of the year.
From that day at Illinois, the alum of the 1st Alliance club dedicated herself to volleyball and earned a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.
And all Rettke did in her inaugural season in Madison was establish a program single-season record for hitting percentage at .443 (the old mark was .422), which ranked second in the Big Ten this season. She also set school season records in the 25-point rally-scoring era for blocks per set (1.37) and points per set (4.39). And Rettke set conference-only records in kills, kills per set, hitting percentage, block assists, total blocks, points and points per set. She was the league’s freshman of the week a record nine times and the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Her VolleyballMag.com honor comes at the end of a special season for freshmen, one of the best in NCAA history. Our list below represents a group of remarkable talent of first-year players who made their marks in a big way this season. The list includes Minnesota’s Stephanie Samedy, who certainly was in the discussion for top freshman, her Wisconsin teammate Sydney Hilley, and a handful of othesr who made big impressions both in the regular and post seasons.
In the case of Rettke, she was a bit taken aback by how well she did.
“I definitely did not expect to have this much success,” Rettke said. “I started playing volleyball a lot later than a lot of kids in our sport (at 15). I had the expectation this year of coming in and practicing very hard and getting a lot better.”
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, whose Badgers reached the NCAA regional semifinals this year, referenced Rettke’s large accumulation of plus .300 hitting matches this season.
Highlights include a .778 effort against North Carolina, .647 against Minnesota, .632 against Maryland, .611 vs. Northwestern and .600 against Iowa. When she went up against national-champion Nebraska, Rettke hit .250 in the first match and came back and hit .500 in the rematch. After hitting .211 in the second meeting with Maryland, all Rettke did was post hitting percentages of .571, .364, .522, .611, .476, .364, .400, .520 and .360 — the latter three coming in the NCAA postseason.
“Dana has size and athleticism. That’s a pretty good combination,” Sheffield said. “She had (six) matches where she hit under .300 all season. You don’t expect that type of consistency from a young player match in and match out. One of the things she did a really good job with is her overall approach to the season from practice to practice and match to match. She was consistent. She didn’t ride that roller coaster of up and down.”
Rettke, a 2017 VolleyballMag.com Girls Fab 50 selection, graduated a semester early from R-B and got to Madison early with two other freshman teammates, setter Hilley and outside hitter Mariah Whalen.
“That was one of the best decisions I made in terms of my growth and development with volleyball,” Rettke said. “I was still able to practice with the seniors who were leaving. I wanted to get better at volleyball. It’s my passion, but I knew I had a long way to go. It was a challenge for me. I was ready for that challenge.”
Once the season started, Rettke said all she did was continue to work hard. Having good teammates also didn’t hurt.
“A lot of it was coming in early and getting in the reps,” she said. “A lot of it definitely was because Sydney was getting me great balls and the defense behind me was making great passes so Sydney could set the middle. A lot of it was my other teammates. For everything they’ve done I have thanked them. I want to make sure they know what. It was not me. It was more of them.”
Rettke said she also benefitted from playing in the Big Ten.
“The Big Ten always is a fantastic conference,” she said. “Everybody brings their best game every night. We saw that across the entire conference all season. I love playing the best. I feel I play my best when others play their best. It’s so much fun playing against the best. It makes me want to get better for my team.”
And Rettke’s ready for her sophomore season.
“I wish the season started tomorrow,” she said. “I am so ready to get in the gym and get back to work. At the (AVCA) All-American banquet, being around so many great All-American players, it was like I was one of them. It was great to experience that. It motivates me more to keep better as my career goes on here.”
VOLLEYBALLMAG.COM 2017 ALL-FRESHMAN TEAM
Taylor Bannister, LSU — The 6-foot-5 jumping jack played mostly on the right side and got the SEC’s attention from the get-go. She led LSU, one of the most improved teams in the country, in kills with 361 (3.22 per set) and had 77 blocks.
T’ara Ceasar, Georgia — Ceasar, a high-jumping outside hitter, was third in the SEC in kills (4.14 per set), and fourth in aces (44). She led the Bulldogs in kills 21 times.
Brynna DeLuzio, Colorado — The setter was a four-time Pac-12 freshman of the week and ranked third in the conference at 11.02 assists per set. She added 59 kills and 47 blocks and led the team with 29 aces.
Sydney Hilley, Wisconsin — Hilley established herself as one of the best young setters in the nation, was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team, and averaged 11.76 assists per set and 2.02 digs.
Taryn Knuth, Florida State —- The middle blocker was the ACC freshman of the year after setting the FSU record for solo blocks (22), total blocks (162), blocks per set (1.49) and she hit .319 and had 220 kills.
Madison Lilley, Kentucky — The setter was the SEC freshman of the year after leading the conference in assists (12.14 per set). She had 65 sets in one match and 18 with 40 or more. Lilley had 70 blocks and averaged 1.99 digs per set.
Kylee McLaughlin, Oregon State — The setter was the Pac-12 and AVCA region freshman of the year after ranking fourth in the league at 10.69 assists per set. She was fourth on the team with 312 digs and had 17 aces and 57 blocks.
Yossiana Pressley, Baylor — She became the first freshman in league history to lead in kills and points per set during conference play. After switching to her natural position of outside hitter for the second half of the season, Pressley .300 and averaged 5.33 kills per set.
Dana Rettke, Wisconsin — The national freshman of the year not only broke the Wisconsin hitting percentage record, attacking at .453, but led led the Badgers in kills with 443 (3.42 per set) and averaged 1.37 blocks.
Breanna Runnels, Colorado State — The outside, one of two redshirt-freshmen on the list, led the Rams in kills with 367 (3.19 per set), had 60 blocks, 10 solo, and averaged .69 digs. She was the Mountain West newcomer of the year.
Stephanie Samedy, Minnesota — The right side was a unanimous first-team Big Ten selection and led the Gophers with 478 kills (4.05 per set ) and hit .303 while playing all six rotations.
Lauren Stivrins, Nebraska — The middle, the other redshirt-freshman on the list, averaged 2.07 kills per set, hit .309, and had 127 blocks, 12 solo, averaging 1.02 blocks per set.
Lexi Sun, Texas — The VBM Fab 50 2017 player of the year was a first-team Big 12 selection after the outside hitter had 337 kills, hit .277, had 151 digs, and had 65 blocks.
Jazz Sweet, Nebraska — The high-jumping right side averaged 2.22 kills and had 73 blocks, four solo and was a key offensive cog in Nebraska’s run to the national title.