For the past several years, the Wisconsin volleyball program has served as a remarkable testament to the value of assembling a roster rich with experience and leadership. Head coach Kelly Sheffield has overseen the team during one of its most remarkable stretches of success in school history, building the Badgers into a perennial contender capable of vying for a national championship each and every season.
In 2016, UW went 27-4, culminating in another terrific run that ended just short of the Final Four. Leading the way was a group of players who were well-established and battle-tested, headlined by a heralded senior class which had grown accustomed to each other on the court and incredibly close off of it.
A lot has changed since last December, though. The star seniors, two of them All-Americans, who had been the heart and soul of the program for years, finally departed—and the stability and continuity on which the Badgers had depended largely left with them.
But the exodus of proven veterans after 2016 has cleared the way for an influx of young talent in their stead. The 2017 roster, comprised of thirteen underclassmen and just two seniors, has a lot to learn but is loaded with potential. The seven freshmen who just arrived in Madison have already proven worthy of the high praise that made them the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation. And returning players who may have seen little playing time in the past have settled into more significant roles with relative ease.
Two weeks into the season, Wisconsin, taking the floor with a lineup full of fresh faces, looks as dominant as ever. The sixth-ranked Badgers have hit the ground running, winning in each of their first five matches and sweeping all 15 sets they have played.
Coach Sheffield’s team has shown promise on a number of different fronts, and that is due in large part to the fast start of his freshmen. Six-foot-eight middle blocker Dana Rettke made her presence felt right away, racking up a team high 30 kills and 11 blocks in her first taste of college volleyball, earning Big Ten player of the week following a monster weekend at the Big Ten/ACC tournament. Fellow freshmen Sydney Hilley, the heir-apparent to Badger great Lauren Carlini, also has had an award-winning start to her career after being named named Big Ten Setter of the Week, Big Ten Freshman of the Week and receiving all-tournament honors in the K-State Invitational this past weekend. Hilley entered the season as UW’s most highly-touted prospect, and she currently leads the team in assists.
Aside from the various newcomers, there are a few players from last year’s team who look primed to break out. Redshirt sophomore middle blocker Madison Duello has begun to show signs that she could develop into a difference-maker. The Kansas City native is coming off the best performance of her career last Saturday, posting 12 kills and eight blocks in the win over Kansas State, both personal bests. If Duello and Rettke can continue asserting themselves up front, the Badgers’ defense could become a force to be reckoned with.
In addition to getting the young players up to speed, the Badgers may also be forced to survive the whole season without their most potent offensive weapon. Sophomore Molly Haggerty, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, is currently recovering from a back injury that could sideline her for the rest of the season, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. If Haggerty ends up not coming back, expect to see senior Kelli Bates continue to shift from libero over to the outside, a switch that she has made seamlessly up to this point. The team is also without senior attacker Lauryn Gillis right now, but she is slated to return.
Despite the loss of a storied senior class, Wisconsin will be featuring a new-looked but immensely talented team in 2017. In a brutally tough Big Ten, it should be very interesting to see if the young Badgers can overcome their inexperience and keep pace with the rest of the conference.