She finished final exams last week, putting a wrap on a junior year of college that Dana Rettke will never forget.

In a normal world, after that last test, Rettke would have then gone home to Riverside, Illinois, hung out for a while in the western Chicago suburb with her family, and then she would have headed to Anaheim to train, hoping to make the Olympic team.

Alas … 

Instead, the 6-foot-8 Wisconsin All-American middle has spent more time in Riverside than any stretch since she graduated high school early and headed off to college.

And that’s not so bad. 

Rettke really hasn’t had a break in more than two years, so much as spent this much time with her family.

“Absolutely, and not just for me. I think this is something that the whole world kind of needed to do just for the sanity of everybody and everything else,” Rettke said. “Everyone is so busy all the time, doing this and doing that, and I think this has given people a chance to stop and smell the roses. 

“No one likes to just sit at home and have everything closed. It’s obviously horrible for the economy and awful for everyone who’s had the virus, but there’s so much benefit from taking a little break.”

She laughed at herself.

“I’m one of these people who’s OK with doing nothing,” Rettke said. “It’s not like a lazy thing, but I’m pretty good at filling my time.”

For what it’s worth, her binge-watching pleasure has been the Schitt’s Creek TV series.

“Taking a step back, this is a good thing for me. I can only benefit from this. Not necessarily from things on the court, but from off the court.”

Rettke graduated early from Riverside-Brookfield High School, enrolled at Wisconsin in the spring of 2017, and then was the and AVCA national freshman of the year. She had another first-team All-American season in 2018, when Wisconsin made it to the NCAA Tournament regional final, and then when school ended a year ago, headed to the national-team gym.

No breaks.

“This is a great time for bodies to recover. This is a great time to work on mental training, which we focus a lot on at Wisconsin, but I’ve taken it upon myself to get better at that and find some things that work for me,” Rettke said. 

“I’ve thought a lot about coping strategies. Coping with stress, for example, and figuring what I respond best to and what I don’t respond best to. Trying to find my voice a little more. So, yeah, I think this is a huge benefit, both physically and mentally.”

She has plenty upon which to reflect.

Rettke spent the summer of 2019 playing for the USA as it clinched a bid to what was then the 2020 Olympics. A kid going into her junior year of college getting to play in five of the team’s FIVB matches (future seniors Jordan Thompson of Cincinnati and Mary Lake of BYU were also on the team). And look at this picture after they won the qualification tournament last August in Bossier City, Louisiana. The big kid was right in the middle on the back row.

The USA women’s national team after clinching an Olympic bid last August/USA Volleyball photo

And that carried over in a big way to the Wisconsin season. She talked then about “newfound confidence, especially serving,” as she more or less dominated the Big Ten.

“It felt different going into the college season,” she said. 

Even though she had four days in between leaving the national team and arriving in Madison.

But then Wisconsin had a magical 2019 season. 

“We felt like a well-oiled machine,” Rettke said. “We felt unstoppable, especially going into the tournament. It was really fun.” 

The Badgers, who went 27-7 overall and 18-2 while winning the Big Ten, caught fire midway through the season and then went all the way to the NCAA Tournament championship match before getting swept by Stanford.

“It was an amazing season and for me just an amazing year, especially after being with the national team,” Rettke said.

Dana Rettke is interviewed by Anne Marie Anderson at the AVCA All-American luncheon last December in Pittsburgh/Ed Chan,

Accordingly, Rettke was the B1G player of the year and a first-team All-American after leading Wisconsin in kills (413, school-record 3.75/set), hitting percentage (.399), and blocks (159, 19 solo), and she was second in aces with 38. She even averaged better than half a dig per set.

“Last year was just so fast-paced for me,” she admitted. “During this time I’ve actually gotten to digest and look back at all the things we got to accomplish last season at Wisconsin. It was incredible. That feeling of success and reaching those goals and those dreams. We basically hit like every goal, minus winning the national championship. We got there, just didn’t win.

“Those feelings are so awesome.”

Getting so close to winning it all made Wisconsin even more focused this spring, she said, until it was cut short. 

“We’re really determined to make this year our year,” Rettke said. 

There’s every reason to think it will be. Wisconsin lost pin hitter Madison Duello, libero Tiffany Clark, and DS M.E. Dodge, but returns quite a core group in first-team All-American setter Sydney Hilley, both outsides in Molly Haggerty (VBM third team) and Grace Loberg (VBM honorable mention), and the other middle, Danielle Hart (also a VBM honorable mention).

For that matter, 12 letterwinners are back, including defensive specialists Lauren Barnes and Izzy Ashburn, who set the Wisconsin record with 47 aces. Ashburn and incoming freshman middle Devyn Robinson were selected to play with what would have been the USA Women’s Collegiate National Team. What’s more, Robinson is part of what recently ranked the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation.

The Badgers are getting together regularly by Zoom and one of their team activities has been watching “The Last Dance,” the 10-part series on former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan. 

“We’ve been having discussions about it and that’s been awesome,” Rettke said, “especially for me growing up in Chicago. Both my parents (Kathy and John) grew up in Chicago and my dad is telling me stories about watching Jordan in the old Chicago Stadium.

“We’re also reading some team books and having sessions on those.”

There are a lot of other Wisconsin players from the Chicagoland area, but Zoom is all there is for now. While seeing those Wisconsin teammates in person will have to wait, of course, Rettke has the advantage of being home and hanging out with her sister, Leah, a 5-11 freshman setter who was named last week as the Triton College team MVP. Triton is a junior college in River Grove, Illinois, and Leah led her team in aces with 43, was second in digs, and third in blocks. And she’s an inch shorter than Wisconsin’s Hilley.

A perfect backyard pepper partner.

“It’s been really nice. I think since last year I was home for like a total of 10 days, so this is really nice,” Dana said.

“We’ve been outside peppering. She’s a setter and I’ll have her hit to me since I definitely want to work on my defense and digging. She’ll set to me and I’ll hit to her, modifying the pepper depending on what we want to work on.”

And while Leah’s a good player, it’s not quite like being in the Wisconsin gym for spring practice or working with the Olympic team. But that’s not putting a damper on things for Rettke.

“There are just way bigger fish to fry right now than for me personally,” Rettke said, who added that she was more worried about veteran teammates like Jordan Larson, who is nearer to the end of her pro career than the beginning.

“My heart breaks for those people, but also I realize there are way bigger fish to fry right now and we just have to get through this and those things will be there for me, especially, and it just kind of is what it is right now, and that’s the attitude I’ve had.”



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