Sydney Hilley was already pretty good.
A VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American and Big Ten setter of the year the past two seasons.
She guided her team to the 2019 NCAA championship match and into the national semifinals last spring.
And here’s the thing: After four great years, the Wisconsin graduate student is better than ever.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said.
“Yes. She has grown so much and so smart out there,” teammate Dana Rettke said. “She reads situations so well and works hard to give her teammates a chance for success. You literally can’t ask for anything more in a setter. She really comes into the gym every day with that mentality that she’s going to get better and that there are still gains to be made in her game.”
Never has it been more evident the past six weeks of this season as Wisconsin grinded its way to another Big Ten title.
“I just think I’m playing with more passion and love for the game,” Hilley said earlier this month. “I think early on in my career I would think a lot about decisions I was making, and try to digest the game plan and make adjustments and now I feel like I’m going out there and having fun and just balling out.
“And when I’m in that mode I’m just letting myself be athletic and trusting my reads and I’m just so much better. But also this year we have so many weapons and they make me look really good. And with our ball control, I’m just really lucky. They make my job so easy.”
Perhaps, but Hilley, who is second in the Big Ten in assists (1,1196, 11.96/set) is really quick, and sets as well as anyone in the country, regardless of the situation. What’s more, the 6-footer from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is an excellent blocker (third on the team with 73).
But there are those well-documented Wisconsin weapons.
The 6-foot-8 Rettke alone is a one-person wrecking crew hitting .442 — but Hilley is constantly making good choices.
“That’s one of the reasons she’s good right now,” Rettke said. “I’ve seen that trajectory, from freshman year to now, just making fantastic decisions and reading the game so well.”
During Wisconsin’s 10-match B1G winning streak earlier this season, Sheffield once said after a tough victory about Hilley, “I thought she was a maestro.”
Hilley and Rettke are playing together for the fifth year in a row and have an incredible non-verbal chemistry between them.
“For sure,” Rettke said. “It’s just so natural. I can say one thing, like ‘Here!’ And she just knows exactly what I need in that moment. That’s us working together and her feeling the game. That connection is there. We look into each other’s eyes and we just know we’re going to grind together and we won’t stop.”
There was no doubt that Hilley was coming back for a fifth year, although she could certainly be playing professionally right now. She graduated in December of 2020 with degrees in genetics and genomics, masters in applied biotechnology.
“I want to go into cancer research,” Hilley said, acknowledging she wants to play pro first, “and am trying to learn about all the technologies and innovations that I can. I want to work in a lab.”
But the past two seasons have left unfinished business.
In 2019, Wisconsin got swept by Stanford in the NCAA-championship match. Then last spring the Badgers were swept by Texas in the national semifinals, their only loss of the season.
“I didn’t want to leave here not ending on a great note. With COVID not having fans in the Field House, not achieving our ultimate goal of winning a national championship, and I know that potential is in us. I didn’t want to leave that in the air if I could have one more shot at it. And I think that’s why so many of our seniors came back.”
That, of course, included Rettke, who has a chance to be the first five-year first-team All-American. She thought on it a long time.
“When Dana came back I was jumping for joy,” Hilley said. “Because I was waiting to sign my lease. I was like please Dana, please stay. She had so many opportunities to go pro. I didn’t want to pressure her to come back if that wasn’t going to be best for her. But I think she has that same drive to keep getting better and get another shot at a national championship and just go out on the right note.”
Note? They play beautiful music together, although Hilley said she likes to tease Rettke.
“I’ll set her and if she doesn’t get a kill, gets dug, I’ll say, ‘Dana, what’s wrong with you, you’re having an off day. C’mon, man, you’re slacking.’
“Seriously, she makes my job easier. At times I just lay it up and let her do the work. Here you go and she’s so smart and so athletic and she can dominate.”
They’ve come a long way.
The 2017 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 list included Rettke, but the top five: Lexi Sun, Brionne Butler, Hilley, Stephanie Samedy, and Madison Lilley. Sun started at Texas and is finishing at Nebraska. Butler is having a great career at Texas, Samedy is doing the same at Minnesota and is likely the Big Ten player of the year, and Lilley, of course, led Kentucky to last spring’s national title and chose not to come back for an extra year.
As a freshman in 2017, Hilley won the job from the get-go and finished second in the Big Ten at 11.76 assists/set. In 2019, when Wisconsin went to the national-championship match, she was named a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American after leading the B1G and ranking fourth nationally in assists at 12.03/set.
Then last spring the Badgers made it to the national semifinals in trying season in which Hilley missed the first match because of COVID. She was third in the conference at 10.88 assists/set.
This season, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in hitting percentage (.289), which ranks eighth nationally.
Sunday night, you would expect that the Badgers, No. 5 in both last week’s AVCA Poll and NCAA RPI, will be announced as a top-four NCAA seed. It would be hard to imagine the Big Ten champion not being amongst the top four.
Wisconsin is 25-3 overall and finished the Big Ten season 17-3. The Badgers won their first eight matches, all non-conference, and then were stunned in five at Maryland, which ended up 7-13 in the league.
Said Sheffield that day, “This is September. We are a work in progress and we continue to be that. That’s one thing about this league, it forces you to deal with some stuff and you have to handle it.”
Deal they did, because the Badgers won their next 10 B1G matches before losing in four at Purdue on October 31.
After victories over Northwestern and Iowa, they lost to Purdue again, this time at home, which broke two Wisconsin home streaks, 30 wins in the Field House, 23 in the Big Ten.
Said Hilley that day, “Don’t get me wrong, that’s a really good (Purdue) team. Really good blocking team, really good serving team, and they outworked us in transition. But I think it just shows that we have a lot of growth left to do and we have time and we just got to make sure that we capitalize on every opportunity. We have to get better and to put ourselves in a good position to win the next game.”
She was right. Wisconsin since has beaten Northwestern, Michigan State, then-No. 9 Minnesota, No.11 Nebraska this past Friday night, and then Indiana on Saturday. The last two gave the Badgers the Big Ten title.
“It was huge. You work all year and you have a chance to win it outright so you’re not gonna let anyone share it with you,” Hilley said. “Every single opponent in the Big Ten is really good and to get a win in the Big Ten is hard anytime, especially after a big win last night (over Nebraska).”
Now it’s a battle to win six matches. No matter what the committee decides, Wisconsin is prepared.
“We like to stay in the moment and there’s so much trust that we have, especially with the people who are fifth-year seniors, that we’ve been playing together forever. We have so much trust in one another that we know we can get it done.”
Wisconsin has been up against it plenty of time this season constantly rallying to win matches.
“There are times when we’re down by a lot and there’s never any doubt or any fear and I think that’s really special, if you have something that can anchor you and bring you back and stay in the moment and take it one at a time. And I think we’re really good at that this year.”