Big, strong Wisconsin has the talent, chemistry and is having fun while leading Big Ten

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Wisconsin libero Tiffany Clark reacts during the Badgers's victory over Penn State on September 28/Tom Lynn, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

Team chemistry. It’s an interesting thing. Does good chemistry create winning? Does winning create good chemistry? 

I ask players the nation over all the time why their team can win the NCAA championship. 

The stock answer — and they’re sincere — is always about how much the team gets along, how the players are like sisters, how they do everything together off the court, and how they’re all in on it. 

In other words, every good team is all for one and one for all.

And then there’s Wisconsin, where the creating of chemistry is a little bit different. 

I went there last week to see the Badgers, ranked No. 5 in this week’s AVCA Poll and No. 2 in the all-important NCAA RPI.

And, yes, they like each other. Everyone is all in, which would be hard not to imagine for a team that’s 21-5 overall and 17-1 in the Big Ten. Four of those five losses were to ranked non-conference opponents, including then-No. 17 but now No. 1 Baylor and back-to-back defeats to now-No. 9 Washington. The lone league loss was at sub.-500 Ohio State, a four-set defeat on November 8 that made no sense other than, simply, it’s the Big Ten.

And since then, Wisconsin has five victories in a row, including a four-set win at then-No. 5 Minnesota on November 14, and the sweep this past Sunday of visiting No. 6 Nebraska in which the Badgers dominated.

Which brings us back to chemistry. This Wisconsin team has all the pieces. 

It has the best middle in the college game in 6-foot-8 junior Dana Rettke, who, against Iowa this past Friday and then Nebraska, combined for 27 kills in 47 errorless attacks, six aces, 13 blocks — one solo — and four digs.

Madison Duello, left, and Dana Rettke put up a formidable block for Wisconsin/Greg Anderson, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

The setter, junior Sydney Hilley, might be the Big Ten player of the year. One outside hitter, junior Molly Haggerty, is playing as well as anyone in the country and certainly hits the ball as hard as anyone. The other outside, junior Grace Loberg, can bring it. So can the other middle, sophomore Danielle Hart, and the right side, senior Madison Duello, has a cannon. Wisconsin is hitting .296 — best in the B1G — as a team.

“Our team is composed of a bunch of studs,” Loberg said.

It’s fun to be the setter.

“It’s insanely fun,” Hilley said, “just because of how many offensive options we have, but also how good of a ball-control team we are. It puts me in really good positions and being able to set everyone makes it really difficult for other teams to defend us.”

And the Wisconsin defense? Not gaudy numbers, since opponents are hitting .198, sixth in the conference, and the Badgers are fifth in the B1G in blocks and fourth in digs. But they come up big time after time. Senior libero Tiffany Clark is right up there with the best in the country. And coach Kelly Sheffield is not afraid to run out of subs. 

Freshman Izzy Ashburn is a serving and defensive specialist for Wisconsin/Wisconsin Athletics Communications

Izzy Ashburn, who had always been a setter, is a freshman serving assassin who comes in for Duello and has a team-high 38 aces. Junior Lauren Barnes subs for Loberg. And senior M.E. Dodge comes in after Haggerty serves. Wisconsin has 150 aces this season, while opponents have 78.

Worth noting, too, is those defensive players are not small. Clark is 5-11, Ashburn 5-11, Dodge is 5-10, and Barnes sneaks in there at 5-6.

“I’m always around tall people and I’m always the short one,” Barnes cracked.

So Wisconsin is big, strong, balanced and talented.

“We’re a pretty tall team,” Hart said. “I don’t even think about it any more.”

But there’s more, and that’s where the chemistry comes in.

Four of those players, Rettke, Clark, Hilley and Barnes, live together. 

Rettke, for one, says it’s not volleyball 24-7. But it kind of is.

“It is a special volleyball household,” Rettke said. “I wouldn’t say that we are all volleyball talk at home. I think we also have lives outside of volleyball, which is really nice. And we hang out a lot together, we enjoy each other’s company. We’re friends and we talk about real things, stuff that’s on our minds. 

“But they’re my teammates and we talk about volleyball and we always love watching volleyball together.”

They make a point to watch Big Ten matches.

“We watch a bunch of games together,” Barnes said, adding that they do a lot of analyzing of other teams.

They all were excited about having watched the big match last week between Baylor and Texas. It wasn’t lost on Hilley that Baylor star outside Yossiana Pressley took 82 swings and had 31 kills in the five-set victory, something that would not likely happen for Wisconsin.

“That’s the nice thing, that no one’s arm is going to fall off,” Hilley joked. “We can rely on one person for one match and then the next match someone else is having a great game, so it’s not the same person over and over.”

Hilley enjoys the volleyball-centric household.

“We’ll talk about games,” they watch “but we’ll also reflect on what practice was like and our own games and we’re really honest with each other.

“If we see something that someone is not doing well, we’re not going to sugarcoat it. We’re gonna tell them we need to get better at this. Or if me and Dana had a practice where the connection was not great, we’ll go back and look at the tempo of my sets and her footwork and try to figure out what went wrong. It’s really cool to be really close to people who you can be really honest with and I think that helps us get better on the court.”

That’s chemistry.

The core four aren’t afraid to share their findings.

Sydney Hilley and Kelly Sheffield/Wisconsin Athletics Communications

“As a team we hold each other very accountable,” Hilley said. “If we’re watching film that Kelly’s showing we can stop it and say, ‘Hey, this is what I see out of you.’ And just say stuff to people. Which is really cool.”

Clark, the self-proclaimed “messy one” loves the volleyball talk at home.

“We analyze how we played and how the team mojo is going,” said Clark, who played her freshman year at Michigan before transferring.

The dynamic between her and Hilley is interesting, too, in today’s game where setters have to play defense first and liberos often set the second ball. Ashbourne also has second-ball responsibilities when Clark is out.

“In past years I’ve struggled setting out-of-system balls and she’s struggled digging. And Kelly expressed to us that we needed to get better at that. That was a nice way of putting it,” Clark said with a laugh. 

“But we really made that a focus. I think I’ve made incredible progress since then. I’m really confident going in there and taking the second ball and I know she’s super confident on the back row playing D.”

Clark, it should be pointed out, is nearly 6 feet tall.

“People see me and they say, ‘Wow, you are a lot taller than we thought.’ Yeah, because I’m standing next to freaks of nature on the court that are huge,” Clark said with a laugh. “Like of course I look small compared to Dana. And I definitely feel like a munchkin next to her. But being a tall libero has its advantages. You can reach for balls that smaller girls can’t get. You can still be tall and agile and quick.”

It’s worth noting that Duello is 6-3, Hart is 6-4, Loberg is 6-3, and freshman middle Julia Wohlert is 6-7.

“My mom and my grandma came to town last week,” Rettke said, laughing as she told the story, “and my grandma comes to our apartment and said, ‘You know Tiffany, you’re a lot taller than I remember. I see you on TV and of course standing next to Dana is one thing, but you really are tall.’ But, yeah, it’s definitely beneficial, too. Clark can cover a very wide range, so can Izzy and so can Syd. It’s definitely to our advantage.”

Anyway, back to the chemistry.

The team ties run deep. Haggerty and Clark, both from Naperville, Illinois, were Sports Performance teammates, where they won three consecutive AAU national championships. Both Clark and Barnes played at national prep power Benet Academy. Junior Riley Bell, a DS, is also from Naperville but went to a different high school. She’s also a Sports Performance product.

Loberg is from the Chicago suburb of Geneva and played for Fusion, but knew well of Haggerty and Clark.

Hilley and Ashburn not only are from suburban Minneapolis, but three of their parents — Christy Hilley, Mike Hilley and Dan Ashburn — teach together at the same middle school they attended. They both played at Champlin Park High School.

There are only five Badgers from Wisconsin — freshman outside Liz Gregorski, senior setter Mallory Dixon, senior DS Sarah Dodd and junior middle Nicole Shanahan — and the only one who plays, Dodge. She’s from East Troy, about 60 miles southeast of Madison.

What’s happening with this team means a lot to her.

“It’s very special and close to my heart,” Dodge said. “I grew up watching Badger volleyball and when I was younger I told my dad, ‘I’m gonna play here one day.’ Yeah.

“We came to a basketball game and I was like, ‘this place is pretty rockin.’ This is a cool place.’ And I loved it and said, ‘Dad, is there a volleyball program?’ And playing here was the goal in my head ever since I was a little girl.

“I mean, I came here for my birthday parties.”

We can only assume there was one in Madison on Tuesday since Dodge — M.E. stands for Mary Elizabeth, by the way — turned 22 that day.

So, yeah, there’s chemistry. 

There’s also tremendous talent.

Consider that Haggerty, who missed all of the 2017 season after back surgery, is having her best season yet. The product of St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Illinois, has 311 kills (3.53/set), is hitting .250, has 16 aces, is averaging 1.18 digs and has 34 blocks.

The other outside, Loberg, has 286 kills (3.25/set) and is hitting .274. Duello has 167 kills (2.14/set), is hitting .258, and has 62 blocks. Hart has 159 kills (1.81/set), is hitting .326, and has 99 blocks, one solo.

Hilley, who has 42 kills and is hitting .268, is averaging 12.45 digs, has 19 aces, averages 2.09 digs and has 62 blocks, one solo. Clark leads with 349 digs (3.97/set), Barnes has 225 (2.56), Ashburn has 214 (2.43/set) and Dodge 84 (1.01/set).

And then there’s Rettke, who has a “newfound confidence, especially serving,” from her time with the national team. Lest we fail to mention, she was an integral part of the USA team that qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She certainly hopes to make the team and be an Olympian next summer.

Rettke leads the team with 325 kills (.396/set) and is hitting .408. She is second in aces with 38 and leads the team with 110 blocks, 11 solo. She’s averaging 1.34 per set.

And not only is Rettke, the product of Riverside-Brookfield High School in suburban Chicago, very tall, she’s extremely athletic. She was quite a good basketball player before giving it up after her sophomore year of high school, is remarkably quick, and jumps high.

She says the experience Wisconsin has is paying off. Remember that last year, the Badgers were 25-7, 15-5 in the B1G, and lost in four in the NCAA regional final to Illinois.

“I think we’re definitely working through stressful situations better,” Rettke said. “Last year I thought we did a very good job of playing hard, but when things got tough it was kind of like, ‘Oh, no.’ And this year, it’s like ‘Let’s go.

“The energy in the gym has consistently just been really awesome. Really high energy. And our play is just amazing. Molly and Grace are having themselves a great year and it’s really awesome to see.”

Duello agreed.

“The way we go about practice, we are very businesslike and also we are having a ton of fun,” Duello said. “The relationships that we’ve formed, since this is an older team, we’ve had years to know each other and to play with each other. I think that helps.”

How about the fun part? 

It’s a new concept to Clark.

“This year we’ve stressed having fun. As cliche as that sounds, I, in my career, have never really understood the concept of having fun playing volleyball.”

“I was like,” and she stopped and snapped her fingers, “I was all results-oriented.”

The results are pretty good, of course.

“I think this year my level of play has gotten so much better because I’m enjoying being with my teammates and having fun. If I had listened to myself say that when I was in high school I would have laughed at myself. That would have been so lame.

“But it’s balancing the competitiveness and the having fun. At the end of the day it’s a game and I used to think that if you’re having fun you can’t be competitive and if you’re competitive you’re not having fun.

“I’ve had this enlightenment, you could say, appreciating the game and loving the game for what it is.”

Wisconsin holds a one-game lead in the Big Ten standings over Penn State (23-4, 16-2). They played in Madison on October 2 in what turned out to be the turning point for Wisconsin this season.

Penn State won the first set 25-23 and led 21-19 in the second before the Badgers rallied for a 25-23 victory. And then won the next two sets 25-13, 25-13. And Wisconsin, which opened Big Ten play with victories over Purdue and Indiana, put together a 12-match winning streak that was snapped at Ohio State. The Badgers have won all five since.

And now Wisconsin goes to Penn State on Friday with so much on the line. Wisconsin needs to win to ensure that it gets one of the top four NCAA Tournament seeds. Penn State, ranked No. 7 in the AVCA Poll and is No. 18 in the NCAA RPI, probably needs to win to get into the top 16 and be a host for the first two rounds.

Last year, Wisconsin only played Penn State once, winning there in five — 21-19 in the fifth set — to end the regular season. 

So pretty much Wisconsin has seen it all.

“We have the experience on this team. There are not a lot of newbies,” Clark said. “We have the maturity to handle those fifth-set situations where previously we would have freaked out. I think the maturity brings a calmness to our play that makes us a lot better.” 

***

So you write a story like this and there are a ton of quotes. And this one didn’t fit into the story, but I have to share.

When Hilley and I were talking about big setters, she brought up this about 6-6 Stanford senior outside Kathryn Plummer:

“I remember when I first met Kathryn Plummer,” Hilley said. “She was a setter. We were both at the U.S. training center for the youth national team, we were really young, and she was the first person I met. And I was like, ‘You’re a middle right?’ And she was like, ‘No, I’m a setter.’ 

“And I was like, oh my gosh what did I get myself into?”

They’ve stayed good friends. 

Wisconsin’s Lauren Barnes goes all out for this dig against Nebraska/Tom Lynn, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

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