When setter Sydney Hilley and middle blocker Dana Rettke were first brought together for a campus visit in 2014, they didn’t interact much with each other. Sophomores in high school at the time of their trip to Madison, the two prospects were invited to attend the Big Ten Championship match at the Field House, meeting one another while watching the Badgers take on the Purdue Boilermakers from the bleachers. Aside from a brief introduction and a few other idle exchanges, both players mostly kept to themselves, unsure of exactly what to say to each other.
By time they arrived at Wisconsin as students last January, the two freshman, who had seemed so reserved in that first meeting, became fast friends. Electing to graduate a semester early from high school to get a headstart on their volleyball careers, Hilley, Rettke and Mariah Whalen made the move to Madison without even the faintest idea of what to expect. This precarious period drew the three freshmen closer together, as they all learned to lean on one another for help navigating uncharted territory.
“Having Dana and Mariah here — it was everything,” Hilley said of her experience last spring. “We always joked that we were like eighth graders trying to be in high school. They knew exactly what I was going through and we could work through stuff together. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it was just me.”
Early enrollment also gave the young Badgers an opportunity to find themselves in the college ranks. When Hilley and Rettke took the floor for the first time in practice, it was obvious that there was much work to be done. They had trouble finding the proper timing and tempo, and Hilley had to refine her set to cater to Rettke’s 6’8’’ frame.
“It was a completely new system for both of us and a way faster set for me,” Hilley said. “For Dana, she had never run anything that fast, so her footwork needed to get better, and my consistency needed to get better. Either one of us would be off one time, or we both would be off.”
But things started to turn the corner once the regular season rolled around. After a full semester’s worth of practice, the connection between Hilley and Rettke finally began to manifest itself on the floor. In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge to open the season, Rettke exploded with 30 kills as Hilley piled up 79 assists, culminating in a fantastic first impression.
After that initial outburst, the nascent freshmen have become the prevailing narrative surrounding No. 10 Wisconsin (7-7 Big Ten, 17-7 overall) in 2017. Among a long list of impressive feats, Rettke’s current hitting percentage of .434 would go down as the highest mark ever achieved by a freshman and also would set a new school record. Hilley, for her part, has collected an average of 11.63 assists per set, ranking as the second most ever recorded by a freshman at Wisconsin, surpassing even the likes of her legendary predecessor Lauren Carlini.
The fluidity of Rettke’s game makes her an anomaly given her size. Despite standing at near seven feet tall, the Illinois native effortlessly runs the floor, nimble enough to bound around the court at will, seemingly unperturbed by the usual constraints felt by athletes of similar stature. This uncanny ability allows her physical gifts to be harnessed in many different ways.
“Dana has really become more versatile on offense,” said Wisconsin assistant coach Gary White. “She can hit a variety of shots. She can hit down the line, she can tip over the block, she can throw over the corner. She can dictate what the defense does because she can attack you from different points.”
Rettke credits her rare athleticism to participation in a wide range of sports, a long list that includes soccer, horseback riding, dancing, swimming and basketball.
“I was very versatile in the sports I played when I was younger,” Rettke said. “I did it all, and I think the skills I developed in those sports definitely carry over to volleyball.”
The distributing end of that connection, Hilley, is more cerebral, capable of mastering the nuances of the game and reading the defense. A capable setter has to be cognizant of not only herself but the people around her, as directing an offense requires intimate knowledge of how each particular player operates.
“You’re learning a whole new system, but you’re also learning how everyone likes to be set,” Hilley said. “You’re giving everyone the same ball and you realize, ‘hey, Gilly [Lauryn Gillis] likes it higher and loopier and Molly [Haggerty] likes it flatter and faster.’ You need to know how each hitter is going to be most successful hitting. You need to know as much as you can about everybody and then make adjustments. That’s some Dana and I have been great with.”
Melding individual talent together necessitates constant communication. On that front, Rettke believes their friendship has played an instrumental role.
“I think what really helps is that we’re best friends off the court,” Rettke said. “We just know how to communicate with each other and know how each one of us works. That builds trust on the court.”
“When she gives me a call, we look each other in the eye, and I know that she’s gonna put all of her effort into getting the best setup for me, and I’m gonna do the same on the other end.”
The duo has impressed so much that some have already drawn comparisons to a former great setter-middle blocker combination — Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson. Rettke seemed taken aback by the implication that she could be a future household name, honored to be held in that high of regard.
“Wow, that’s crazy, right? I take a lot of pride in inspiring other people and making them happy, so if other people can get joy out of watching me, that’s awesome,” Rettke said. “I take so much pride in this school and this program, so that’s really humbling to me.”