Wisconsin overcame injuries to key players to win the Big Ten volleyball title and enters the NCAA Tournament seeded No. 4.

·4 min read

MADISON – With four All-Americans back and a total of six players returning for their sixth year of volleyball, Wisconsin had the potential to enjoy a low-turbulence season in 2021.

Those hopes were dashed early.

Senior middle blocker Danielle Hart suffered a season-ending torn ACL in practice in mid-September, just six matches into the season.

Senior libero/defensive specialist Giorgia Civita tore the ACL in her right knee — for the fourth time — in late September.

She was out only three weeks, however, returned with a brace and no ACL but suffered a torn plantar facia. She has played in 53 of 93 sets.

“She is still finding ways to get back on the court and battle through,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said.

The injuries have forced Sheffield and his staff to move a few pieces around and shuffle lineups.

Nevertheless, the Badgers (25-3) won their third consecutive Big Ten title and are seeded No. 4 in the NCAA Tournament.

UW hosts Colgate (18-9) in a first-round match at 7 p.m. Friday at the Fieldhouse. The first match of the day, which starts at 4:30 p.m., features Texas Tech (17-12) against Florida Gulf Coast (26-5)

The winners meet at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“One of the things you live for is growth of a team and how they respond,” said Sheffield, whose team reached the national semifinals last season before getting swept by Texas. “We’ve said all along this is a team that is a work in progress.

Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield talks to his players during a break in a match against Marquette in September.
Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield talks to his players during a break in a match against Marquette in September.

“It has taken awhile for us as coaches to kind of figure some things out of putting people in positions of strengths and the players to just battle.”

The Badgers battled back to win their final five Big Ten matches, after suffering a 3-1 home loss to Purdue on Nov. 12, to win the title outright with a 17-3 mark.

They dropped two of the first three sets Nov. 21 at Minnesota but rallied to win, 3-2.

They dropped the first set, 25-14, to visiting Nebraska in their next match but rallied to win in four sets and clinch the league title.

They closed the regular season by sweeping Indiana.

“What it takes is a resilience of just staying with it, of not riding an emotional roller coaster,” Sheffield said. “They have done a fabulous of job … They haven’t given up on themselves and they’ve been rewarded up to this point.

“Those are things as coaches that just light your spirit, when a team is going through adversity. This isn’t a perfect team by any means. But, man, they love the game. They love playing for each other. They are just tough.”

Wisconsin setter Sydney Hilley sets against Marquette in a September match.
Wisconsin setter Sydney Hilley sets against Marquette in a September match.

Senior Sydney Hilley was named the Big Ten’s setter of the year for the third consecutive season and was a first-team, all-conference pick. Middle blocker Dana Rettke joined Hilley on the first team. Both were unanimous picks.

Libero/defensive specialist Lauren Barnes and sophomore middle blocker Devyn Robinson were second-team picks.

Outside hitter Julia Orzol was named the league’s freshman of the year.

Robinson was a third-team All-American outside hitter as a freshman and started this season on the right side. She had to move into the middle after Hart went down.

Junior Joslyn Boyer has helped fill the void caused the Civita’s injuries. Orzol has been fantastic and is second on the team in kills per set (3.01).

Sophomore Jade Demps and freshman Anna Smrek split time at outside hitter.

Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke blocks Marquette outside hitter Ellie Koontz during a match in Milwaukee in September.
Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke blocks Marquette outside hitter Ellie Koontz during a match in Milwaukee in September.

UW has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of Sheffield’s nine seasons. The Badgers reached the title match in 2013 and 2019.

Do the Badgers enter the NCAA Tournament with momentum or must they reset?

“I think it is both,” Sheffield said. “I want my players to be the most confident people on the planet and you certainly want them to be at that time ...

“We’re in a really good place. I believe anybody that is watching us can see this is a team, they’re able to grind. And when their backs are against the wall, they can come out and set the world on fire.”

Dayton 3, Marquette 1: The Golden Eagles fought off three match points before falling, 25-20, 25-21, 24-26, 25-23, in the first round NCAA Tournament game Thursday night in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Savannah Rennie led the Golden Eagles (26-6) with 14 kills, while Jenna Reitsma had 11 and Taylor Wolf had 10 along with 20 assists and 15 digs.

Lexie Almodovar led Dayton (26-5) with 21 kills, while Alayna Yates had 13 and Jamie Peterson, 12.

The Golden Eagles were making their 10th NCAA tournament appearance in the last 11 years.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin volleyball seeded No. 4 in NCAA tournament despite injuries

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