Volleyball has been my passion since I was 9 years old and my mom promised me a new pair of shoes if I made one of the club teams near our home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. I’ve loved challenges for as long as I can remember and I really wanted those shoes, so I did what I had to do to get them. I tried out for the MN Selects 12-1’s and made the team.
I had no clue then where it would lead me. My mom, Christy, played volleyball in college, so her love for the game undoubtedly rubbed off on me. I soon discovered that I had a knack for it and learned early on that I liked winning. A lot. It was also apparent to me that I craved being involved in every play, which is why I became a setter. Plus, I was the smallest player on the team and not yet big enough to be a hitter.
Little did I know how much volleyball would shape me. It brought me to Wisconsin to play for the Badgers. It connected me with people that I will love forever. It taught me countless lessons about character and human relations. It opened doors to my heart and soul.
Perhaps most important, it led me down a path toward the biggest challenge of my life.
I want to change the world.
I want to help find a cure for cancer. I want to help people. I want to someday work in a lab where my education — an undergraduate degree in genetics and genomics and a master’s in applied biotechnology — will be fully utilized.
I had a different plan when I came to UW in January of 2017. I intended to enroll in the Doctor of Pharmacy program, but I found out that the four-year pharmacy model has very strict class times and they conflicted with all the demands — practices, conditioning sessions, meetings and travel — of volleyball. So I planned on getting an undergraduate degree in either chemistry biology or genetics and then pursue pharmacy school after that. However, once I got into genetics classes I started to realize this is what I wanted to do with my life. In a strange way, my passion for volleyball helped me discover my passion for cancer research.
Cancer impacts people in so many different ways. I lost one of my grandmothers to breast cancer. I have a teammate whose uncle passed away from a rare form of cancer when she first arrived on campus. The list goes on. We’ve all been tragically touched by the disease. I want to do something about that. I want to use all the tools we have — and discover new ones — to change the course of cancer treatment and help find a cure.
As long as I love volleyball I want to keep doing it, but when that door closes, I know exactly what I want to do with my life.
I came to Madison because of the Wisconsin volleyball culture, its coach, Kelly Sheffield, and its reputation for success. I came to UW wanting to win championships — Big Ten Conference and NCAA — but once I got here I realized how hard that is, especially when you’re playing in a league like ours.
Think about this: In my five seasons here, nine different Big Ten teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament at least once and five have reached the Final Four. Eight made the current field. Four advanced to the Elite Eight. Two are in the Final Four.
My very first Big Ten match was a wake-up call. We were 9-0 and playing at Michigan State. We won the first set pretty handily. I remember thinking, “Well, this is easy.”
We wound up getting beat in five sets and started down the path toward losing 10 matches and finishing seventh in the league, our lowest placing since 2012. Even though we qualified for the national tournament and reached the Sweet 16, it was a season filled with hard lessons. I remember thinking, “Dang, this is going to be a challenge.”
You keep playing opponents that are that tough over and over again and you start to realize why people say the Big Ten is the best volleyball conference in the country. That’s a good thing because it prepares you for all the high pressure moments you’re going to face. The fact we’ve won three straight Big Ten championships is pretty amazing. It’s proof we’re doing things the right way and all the players in this program are all in.
My first season with the Badgers was definitely my most challenging. Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson, both three-year captains, had graduated and I was looked upon as someone who would step into a leadership role. It was hard because I didn’t know if I’d earned the right to be a leader as a freshman. There were things I’d never dealt with before.
If you’re a setter, you have to be a leader and I’ve definitely grown into that role. I’ve talked to Kelly a lot about it. I’ve talked with other leaders in the program, especially Lauren, a three-time first-team All-America setter, and Haleigh. I’ve read books on mental toughness and leadership. I’ve studied other great present and former Badgers leaders.
We do personality assessments every year — how people respond to certain types of communication — and I really took that stuff to heart. I have matured in my ability to communicate with my teammates in pressure moments to get the best out of them, phrasing the message in a way that each player will best receive it.
This is our third national championship semifinal during my time at UW, our third chance to bring home the first NCAA title in program history. We lost in the final match in 2019 and the semifinals in 2020. Those memories both sting and evoke pride. But, most importantly, they motivate our team to finish what we started.
Right after losses like that, there’s nothing you can change. You feel for the players that put in the work and don’t get another shot at it. But it’s also telling the team, “We’re going to get back here. We’re going to finish this thing the right way next year.” It’s getting everyone back on the same page, to be forward-looking and to let it motivate you, but not let it affect your confidence or your belief that we can accomplish it.
When you put in so much work it’s heartbreaking not to realize your ultimate goal. Seeing the seniors leave — knowing that was their last chance to do it and coming up just a little bit short — it drives you every single day to be better than you were for everybody around you so that they can accomplish their dreams. Those losses are the hardest. They don’t go away. You think about them all the time and how your season ended and what more you could have done.
One way that I’ve grown is that I focus on controlling what I can. There are so many aspects you can’t control and you have to let that go. But you can control being in the moment and enjoying every opportunity you have and just really appreciating everything. That was our mindset during the COVID year in 2020. We had so many games cancelled and we weren’t able to see our teammates or hang out with them because of the pandemic. Being able to play games with people you love in a packed Field House, you just try to take it all in and appreciate the journey.
Losing like we did in 2019 to Stanford and ’20 to Texas hurts. But having the majority of this team experience that feeling unites us and brings us together. We know what it feels like to be in those moments. We want to get back to the national championship match because we want another shot at winning it all. We want some redemption.
If there’s a lesson from the last two years, this is it: You have to stay where your feet are. You cannot think ahead. You cannot underestimate anybody, especially in this tournament.
There are teams you haven’t heard that much about and it’s easy to go, “Oh, they’re not in a Power 5 conference.” But the teams that remain are dangerous. They’re good. They’re scrappy. You have to respect everyone and you can’t look ahead. You need to stay in the moment, take it one point at a time. It’s easy to look at the bracket and be like, “How do we get to the national championship? Who do we have to play?” You can’t do that. That’s how you get beat. That’s how you get upset. You learn that in the Big Ten right away. It doesn’t matter what the team’s record is. They’re good. It’s important to respect everyone you play.
Of course, it’s tempting to think about what it would be like if we achieved our goal. It’s so easy to imagine the celebration with confetti and the dogpile and everything. You just have to tell yourself you’re not going to get there if you think about that. It needs to stay in the back of your mind.
There’s something about being a setter that makes you want to be a perfectionist. You want to be better for your teammates and make sure you’re doing everything you can to make the person next to you better. That’s just part of who Kelly recruits. He gets people that want to keep improving and are never satisfied with where they’re at.
I’ve known Kelly for nine years now. He’s quirky and goofy, but I think he’s secretly a genius. The time he spends each day trying to be a better coach shows and is appreciated. There are times when he’ll do something out of the ordinary and I’ll go, “What’s he doing?” Then I’ll think about it and I’ll go, “Oh, now I see what he’s up to.”
When I first committed to Wisconsin, I was 100-percent sure I made the right decision. Looking back now, I had no idea how great it was going to be. It makes me smile to think about how sure I was and yet I had so little idea of how awesome my time here was going to be. I couldn’t imagine playing in a culture other than this one, where everyone wants to be the best they can be. It’s not about awards or about doing things halfway. It’s about buying in.
The little things really matter here. It’s not just the practices. It’s the film study. It’s how you eat. It’s how you recover. It’s how you get your sleep. It’s how we treat each other. Each person owns their role and works together within the system. That’s what makes a great team. We’ve really owned that process these last couple weeks of the season. Being united. Working together.
It was hard at the beginning of this season because we have so much talent and not everyone was in the role that they wanted. Getting everyone to buy in, to accept their roles and make the team better so that we could accomplish our goals, was so important. Now, everybody wants the best for the team. That’s really special. That takes a lot of selflessness.
I have the utmost respect for my teammates who don’t get on the court as much as they would like.
To come into the gym every single day and give it their all and then be happy for those in their position, is incredible. All these players are so talented. They come from their high schools or other colleges where they were the stars. Then they get here and they have to wait their turn and accept a little less spotlight. Everyone’s sacrifices and attitudes demonstrate their love for our team and are so inspiring.
I was talking with my family recently about all the twists of fate that brought this team together; how one different decision could have changed the course of this team; how lucky I am that all these people came to play volleyball at Wisconsin because they’ve all made me a better player and person.
Dana Rettke is a perfect example. She isn’t just a gifted five-time All-American middle blocker. She’s my best friend, roommate and sounding board. She’s the heartbeat of this team, a 6-foot-8 role model for people experiencing the same odd stares and insensitive reactions as she has during her life. She makes it an awesome thing, not something to be insecure about. She owns it, inspires so many young players and I love her for that.
Thanks to Dana, I’ve learned to be less rigid and to enjoy the ride. I remember when I was a freshman and I got a “B” in calculus. I got straight A’s in high school, so I was not happy with that grade at all. I called my mom crying and my mom ended up calling Dana trying to make sure I was okay. I was so distraught about it because I’d put in so much work and I was like, “How did I not get an A?” I am not okay with this. Sometimes you can work your tail off and not get the result you wanted.
I had to learn that you can’t stress over stuff like that. B’s are going to happen. It’s not going to change your life. As long as you’re putting in the work, that’s all you can do. It’s just like volleyball: If you’re controlling what you can and doing what you can — trying your best — you can’t be mad about it. Having a friend and teammate like Dana helped me embrace the fact that life goes on. I’ve learned to be less analytical — okay, just a little less analytical — and more trusting of myself. When I’m not thinking on the volleyball court and just balling out, I’m so much better.
One of the greatest joys I’ve had at UW is being able to play in a place like the Field House. We are so spoiled by our fans. They really care. They definitely help us through moments when we’re struggling. If we get off track for a couple points, they are clapping and making noise to get us to right the ship. They make all the hard work we put in worth it. We can never say thank you enough for their support.
This is the absolute best place in the country to play college volleyball. Kelly always says, “There’s somebody in the crowd today who’s never seen you play. You need to inspire them and show them what Badger volleyball is.”
I hope we’ve done that.
My New Home
Hilley named National Player of the Week
Dana Rettke named AVCA National Player of the Year
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