Wisconsin was three two-point losses from, well, who knows.
But the relatively young Badgers, who finished 22-10 in 2017, 11-9 in the Big Ten, advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 before losing to Stanford.
“We felt like we were right there,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “There’s a lot of genuine enthusiasm from our players moving forward.”
Wisconsin opened Big Ten play with a 14-25, 25-18, 25-22, 22-25, 15-13 home loss to Michigan State.
Then, on a early road trip, the Badgers lost at Nebraska — which eventually won the NCAA title — 22-25, 17-25, 25-20, 25-23, 15-8.
They continued on to Minnesota, losing to the Gophers 23-25, 25-20, 20-25, 25-15, 15-13.
And then in early November, Ohio State, which failed to make the NCAA Tournament, came to Madison and won 14-25, 16-25, 25-21, 25-23, 15-13.
Clearly the margin of error was slim in the Big Ten, where Wisconsin finished tied for seventh with Michigan.
“We lost to some real good, experienced teams,” Sheffield said. “It was hard to be too frustrated with this group. We were knocking, but this is a really tough league.”
“I keep coming back to that, but winning is really freaking hard. We were playing hard, we were prepared, we were getting better, but so were other teams. And they had a say in this.”
Wisconsin finished No. 12 in the final AVCA Poll. Four other Big Ten teams — No. 1 Nebraska, No. 3 Penn State, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 10 Minnesota — finished ahead of the Badgers.
Wisconsin had just two seniors on last year’s roster, outside Lauryn Gillis (2.43 kills per set) and outside/libero Kelli Bates (2.61 kills), both of whom had strong careers. Junior libero Amber McDonald is retiring because of injuries.
“The bulk of our lineup is coming back,” Sheffield said, not mentioning that Wisconsin also gets the return of outside hitter Molly Haggerty.
The hard-hitting Haggerty, a 6-1 outside hitter, was a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American as a freshman in 2016, but then had back surgery. She sat out 2017 but practiced most of the season with the team.
Two freshmen were tremendous all season.
Dana Rettke, a 6-foot-8 middle, led Wisconsin in kills (386 total, 3.42 per set) and blocks (155, 15 solo) and setter Sydney Hilley, who replaced four-time All-American Lauren Carlini. Another freshman, outside hitter Grace Loberg, came on strong late and led Wisconsin with a career-high 20 kills in its season-ending defeat to Stanford. And redshirt-sophomore outside Madison Duello made the most of her chance and averaged 1.95 kills.
“There are other teams that are young. I’ve had young teams and I’ve had inexperienced teams. We’ve all had that. We weren’t a team that was that familiar with each other,” Sheffield said. “Put it that way.
“Kelli Bates was inexperienced, but she had spent the previous year and a half working strictly as a libero. We went into preseason believing she was going to be playing just back row.”
Middle Tionna Williams, who will be a senior in 2018, was third in kills (259) and second in blocks (104) and was perhaps the most experienced Badger at her position entering last season. What’s more, she’ll be the only senior on next season’s team.
“We were a pretty young group having to battle some awfully good teams,” Sheffield said.
Just one player will join Wisconsin, 6-7 middle/right-side Julia Wohlert from Indianapolis.
“We like her potential but I would anticipate her redshirting,” Sheffield said.
Classes for the Wisconsin spring semester started in late January, which is when the Badgers got back to business.
“We’re just getting started. We get started later than a lot of other people,” Sheffield said last week. It’s still early.”
Sheffield said how much time each player took off depended on the individual.
“Basically, when they come back you want them mentally refreshed, you want them physically ready to start it back up,” he said. “For some players, it’s don’t think about it, just let your body heal, let your body veg, be with your family, enjoy the holidays.”
“Our strength coach gives them a little bit to do. He doesn’t want them vegging out and becoming mush. Kind of more of an active rest. Don’t let atrophy set in. Some of our players went into their club gyms and did some some things. If you want to get in and get some touches and find that therapeutic, that’s good, because some of them are away for five weeks.
“But it’s low-key on our part and when they get back here we want them chomping at the bit.”