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Badger volleyball smacks into the spotlight

A Final Four guide to a team that’s been selling out games for six years.

A Final Four guide to a team that’s been selling out games for six years. (Photo: Badgers hitter Molly Haggerty in a September game against Washington. Photo by Chad Mosley/courtesy of UW Athletics.)

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a big deal happening in Badgers athletics. A sportsball team is looking to put a nice big cherry on top of a great season by playing when and where the players and fans dreamed about all year.

Think this is about the Rose Bowl? And football? Sorry, no. This is volleyball, as in Badgers volleyball. As in playing for a national championship this week with an NCAA Final Four semifinal match against Baylor at 6 p.m. Thursday in Pittsburgh. If they win, they would play again on Saturday for all the marbles. 

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Badgers volleyball has its audience, and a dedicated one at that. The team sold out every home match this season and was No. 2 in attendance nationally. But even so, this national championship chase will no doubt be lauded by people who claim they were fans all along but in fact don’t know a libero from a liberal.

We’re here to help. For those who want something more meaningful to watch than a Random Product Bowl Game, or just want to support a sport that doesn’t turn its players’ brains to applesauce, a few facts can help volleyball newbies fake their way through. 

Dana Rettke is tall. Let’s just get that out of the way. The Badgers’ star, an all-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year, is 6 feet 8 inches tall. Sure that comes in handy but if height is all it takes, the Badgers could stick a Christmas tree in the front row and call it good. Rettke also has a dangerous serve and can dive to the floor to save a point as well as anyone. She also has such a powerful swing when she celebrates a point, it’s a miracle she hasn’t cold-cocked one of her teammates yet.

Someone’s jersey doesn’t match. That’s the libero. It’s a back row position that was added to volleyball about 20 years ago to boost defense—and, on the international level, to help teams that don’t boast extraordinarily tall players. The libero (LEE-behr-oh or lee-BEHR-oh, take your pick) plays by different rules regarding how they can hit and from where, and how they sub in and out, so the different colored jersey helps officials and teammates keep track. The Badgers’ libero is Tiffany Clark.

The rules changed. If you haven’t watched volleyball for a while, you might get confused. In fact, if you sit in the Field House bleachers you might hear kids explaining the rules to their parents. In the past 20 years, new rules have made the game more fan- and TV-friendly. Teams don’t have to serve to score a point. If the serve hits the net and goes over, it counts. The first team to 25 with a two-point margin wins the set, which used to be called a game. The match is best of five sets. And if it goes to a fifth set, the last set only goes to 15 points. And the losing team has to run wind sprints for 15 minutes afterward. OK, the last part is not true. 

Molly Haggerty is badass. A video that the NCAA released of the Badgers’ hitter first saving a point and then finishing it on Saturday night against Nebraska was proof enough. But even more impressive is the fact that Haggerty is still playing at all. After a superb freshman season she had back surgery and missed what would have been her sophomore season. It’s amazing enough to see her bend into the shape of a crescent moon when she leaps to pound the ever-living snot out of the ball. To do so a couple years after a career-threatening back injury? Badass.

Wait, what’s her name? The Badgers’ volleyball team has a star setter (the quarterback of the team) named Sydney Hilley. She’s a junior from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. The Badgers’ women’s basketball team has a point guard (the quarterback of the team) named Sydney Hilliard. She is a freshman from Monroe, Wisconsin. It’s OK to be confused.

This program forces change. It’s a rare thing when market forces, instead of a Title IX complaint, spark an athletic department to make big changes for a women’s program. But that’s just what happened last year when UW Athletics sunk money into the volleyball team’s home, the UW Field House, to open 1,000 more seats—to 7,052—for a team that has been regularly selling out matches for six years. The building’s balcony was not up to code after the basketball teams moved out in 1998, and volleyball fans were allowed only in the lower level. Moving to the Kohl Center wasn’t an option for volleyball because of court dimensions and scheduling conflicts with basketball and hockey. There are more balcony seating areas that need to be upgraded and likely more demand for tickets looming. 

Volleyball is on the rise. In the past decade, volleyball has surpassed basketball in popularity for high school girls. Some girls and women prefer it because there’s no contact, some prefer it because it’s just fun to smack the bejeezus out of the ball. What’s also a bonus for volleyball is that unlike basketball, there’s not a men’s version of the sport going on at the same time to give the haters ammunition about why the women are supposedly inferior. (There is men’s collegiate volleyball, but far fewer teams than women and they play in the spring. Edgewood College is adding a men’s team for 2020-21.) 

Next up: Olympics. There’s definitely a Wisconsin connection to the Tokyo Olympics, taking place July 24 through August 9. The Badgers’ Rettke was on the U.S. team that qualified for the Games but is no shoo-in to be in Tokyo because the Olympic squad has fewer players. Not to worry, Badger faithful, the last time the Badgers went to a Final Four (2013) they were led by a setter named Lauren Carlini. Carlini will be part of the U.S. team in Tokyo. Needless to say, this volleyball info could come in handy again.

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