COLUMBUS, OHIO — They sat in a locker room in the same arena five years ago this weekend, not knowing what they thought the next four years would bring.

As it turned out, it was five years — a period of Wisconsin volleyball that will culminate with Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament championship match against Nebraska.

Five years ago, two high-school kids, Grace Loberg from Geneva, Illinois, and Sydney Hilley, from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, were teammates in the Under Armour All-America Volleyball Match in Nationwide Arena. Later that weekend, in the same arena, Stanford would beat Texas for the NCAA title.

The memory popped up on Snapchat, the two of them on the court, making W’s with their hands for Wisconsin.

Grace Loberg, left, and Sydney Hilley, at the Under Armour match in 2016

“That came up on my phone, and I showed Syd, and I was like, things have really come full circle,” Loberg said with a laugh. “Us being back here right now together. Playing for a fifth season, playing for a national championship. It’s crazy to think about it.”

Saturday night’s title match between two Big Ten rivals, fourth-seeded Wisconsin (30-3) against No. 10 Nebraska (26-7), is chock full of what are being called these “super seniors,” players taking advantage of the NCAA-given extra year because of COVID. 

For Big Ten-champion Wisconsin, there are not only Loberg and Hilley, but also Dana Rettke, Giorgia Civita, Lauren Barnes, and the injured Danielle Hart. 

Nebraska, which finished second in the Big Ten, has fifth-year seniors in Lauren Stivrins and Lexi Sun (who also played in that Under Armour match). 

“I am ecstatic. I cannot wait to be back there (in the title match),” Loberg said. “It just feels different this year with this team, this group. I don’t know. I feel like we’re ready.”

Wisconsin lost in the 2019 national final to Stanford. Last spring, the Badgers lost in the national semifinals to Texas.

This season, Wisconsin and Nebraska played twice. Wisconsin swept at Nebraska 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 on October 27. Then the Badgers won in four on November 26 at home, 14-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-18. 

“We know it’s going to be a bloodbath with Nebraska,” Loberg said. “We’ve played them twice this season, both times for high stakes, and this is for the highest stakes. So it’s gonna be a fun environment.” 

One thing about Loberg: She seems to have fun playing volleyball.

“I was so excited that she decided to come back, because that was probably a coin flip at the time,” Coach Kelly Sheffield of Wisconsin said. “She brings so much joy to the gym, so much freshness into the gym.”

She also brings a cannon of an arm. The 6-foot-3 outside is a big, strong woman who this season is averaging 2.84 kills per set, hitting .269. She has 295 kills, third on the team behind Rettke (398), the All-American middle, and the other outside, Polish freshman Julia Orzol (304). 

Wisconsin’s Grace Loberg reaches high for a ball against Louisville/Wally Nell photo

The 2019 season statistically was Loberg’s best, but when Wisconsin got to the national semifinals and beat Baylor, she struggled on offense, getting seven kills while hitting .029. Two nights later against Stanford in the title match, it happened again. She had five kills with as many errors.

“I struggled in both of those games. I feel like I wasn’t playing like myself. I wasn’t swinging hard in out of system, I was tipping the ball. So much of that was confidence. So watching both of those games — which I did, and it was painful — I was like, holy crap, I don’t deserve to be out on the court if I’m not playing confidently and giving it my all and not being timid,” Loberg said. 

“That’s the biggest change for me. I’ve worked on so many things, but that’s the biggest thing, that confidence. And now I’m playing more confident than ever.”

Things didn’t change by accident.

“With my hitting, it’s a little thing, but I’ve been working with Gary (assistant coach Gary White) twice a week every week. We watch film, and we get into the gym. I’ll stand on a box, and we’ll work on hand contact. That’s something that has really helped me out of system and even in system, knowing when not to (hit hard) and being able to constantly be able to manipulate the ball. That helps me so much.”

Loberg also worked on becoming a more efficient blocker and made herself better at serve receive.

“We know that the other teams are going to serve right between Julia and I every single time,” she said after it happened Thursday when Wisconsin beat Louisville in the national semifinals, And she knows it will happen again Saturday against Nebraska.

“We’ve been teammates for five years, and every single year she’s just gotten so much better and more confident and just someone I can turn to in high-pressure situations,” Hilley said. “And this year especially, there’s just a look in her eye that’s like, ‘Let’s go, we got this. Give me the ball.’ And I feed her, and she’s playing super well, and it’s super fun.”

Against Louisville — while freshman Anna Smrek was setting a new bar with 20 kills and one error in 27 attacks to go with three blocks, and Rettke got 14 kills and eight blocks — Loberg quietly had 13 kills, an assist, a block, and four digs. 

“People get film on you, and you have to evolve your game,” Sheffield said. “She’s been a player who’s been able to continue to add tools to the tool belt, if you will, and the idea here is that by the end of your career to be playing your best volleyball. And Grace is.”

Loberg graduated last May with a degree in human development and family studies, and she’s taking graduate courses. Pro volleyball is possible, and so, she said, is beach volleyball.

But first there’s that national-championship match, which is a long time after that Under Armour match,

For that matter, it’s a long time since middle school.

“So a little fun fact about Grace and myself,” Rettke said. “We actually played basketball against each other in eighth grade. That was my first introduction to Grace.

“And, wow, we’ve been through a lot together. Full five years, hung out a lot during club and got to know each other really well. And Gracie is just one of those people that you want to play so well for. She just brings so much energy, so much fire.

“Just seeing her improvement this season alone has been incredible. And she’s such a huge part of this team. And you see it every day in the gym. She goes in, gets her extra reps, makes sure she’s where she wants to be to perform well for this team.

“And that’s just how Grace is. She’s really selfless. She works really hard. And she’s just fun to be around. We always joke around and have some fun. But, yeah, I love that girl.”

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