Last season, the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team achieved the ultimate program goal: a championship trophy.
After numerous deep NCAA tournament runs, including two unsuccessful trips to the national championship within the last decade, the Badgers finally won it all. Like all championship teams, Wisconsin’s win required a plethora of moving pieces to fit into place. A few all-time program players, a championship-level coach and a little bit of luck – all aligned at the right time.
Yet, the glamor of a championship is short lived. Some have finished their careers, others decided to simply leave and new faces have been brought in to replace the old. The process repeats. Whatever feelings remain from the victory must be pushed to the side.
The campaign to continue on the Badgers’ championship momentum has already begun. With a handful of matches under the reigning victors’ belts, what is standing in the way of another title?
Unquestionably, the Badgers’ biggest obstacle in repeating is the sheer amount of roster turnover from last year to now.
The most significant loss is that of Dana Rettke – one of the best and most accomplished Wisconsin Badger athletes of all time. The 6’-8” middle blocker was the only player in American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) history to receive five consecutive First-Team All-American honors.
Rettke capped off her illustrious career with not only a championship ring, but also becoming the third to ever win Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year — twice. She will pursue a professional career in Italy with Vero Volley Monza.
The Badgers also lost Sydney Hilley, the star setter who earned three consecutive First-Team All-Americans and ranks near the top of most significant Wisconsin assist records.
Three other veteran Badgers also capped off their careers in 2021 due to the end of their eligibility: Lauren Barnes, Giorgia Civita and Grace Loberg.
Wisconsin does, however, still have head coach Kelly Sheffield at the helm. The Muncie, Indiana native has spent the last decade creating a powerhouse in Madison. During the Sheffield era, the Badgers have reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 every season and the championship three times – finally winning last year. Through Sheffield’s first nine seasons, the Badgers have accumulated a 235-53 record, or a .828 winning percentage – seventh in the country during that time.
While Wisconsin isn’t necessarily lacking in talent, the aforementioned loss of some vital leaders will prove to add extra pressure to a team already carrying the weight of being the reigning champions.
Yet, so far in 2022, the roster has not seemed to be a problem, as the Badgers are off to a 5-1 start. They are led by players like Sarah Franklin, the sophomore outside hitter who transferred from Michigan State.
Franklin is currently the run-away team leader for kills and sits within the top ten of the Big Ten in kills per set. She was also the player who finished second to Dana Rettke in kills last year, while sharing First-Team Big Ten honors.
Izzy Ashburn is a senior setter who led 2021’s team with 52 service aces. She stepped into a larger role this season and has accepted it – playing in all 21 sets and leading the team in assists by a mile with 132.
Younger Badgers have also stepped up, as first year libero Gulce Gutcekin was recently named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week. The Istanbul native came up big in Wisconsin’s most recent two matches, racking up an impressive 26 total digs. The Badgers will need help from their younger cast if they hope to make a deep tournament run.
The season statistics would be higher if Wisconsin played more sets, but the Badgers have gotten into the habit of wasting no time with their opponents. Wisconsin is currently riding on a three-match streak of all sweeps. Throughout six total matches played, the Badgers have only surrendered four sets.
Despite the turnover, Wisconsin is still a championship program. All the Badgers have done under Sheffield is win – when it matters most. The question is whether the major changes from last season are enough to significantly lower expectations.
Wisconsin will play their next match on Friday, September 16, against the No. 16 ranked Florida Gators. This special matchup will be the first volleyball game inside the Kohl Center in 25 years.