Wisconsin volleyball player Dana Rettke goes up for a block during a Badgers practice at the UW Field House. Rettke, a senior three-time All-American, would have competed with the U.S. national team over the summer in hopes of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. (Photo by Bianca Miceli for UW Athletics)
Wisconsin volleyball player Dana Rettke goes up for a block during a Badgers practice at the UW Field House. Rettke, a senior three-time All-American, would have competed with the U.S. national team over the summer in hopes of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. (Photo by Bianca Miceli for UW Athletics)

With most of the key players from the team returning, the Badgers are the favorite to win the national title.

These days, everyone has those moments that make it clear that nothing is normal right now. For Wisconsin volleyball player Dana Rettke, that moment came when she went for a walk on a nice fall day.

As one of the best players in the United States, Rettke is used to her fall schedule being filled with volleyball practices and matches. In years past, she seldom had time for leisurely walks to simply enjoy the changing fall colors. 

“We really don’t get to do that,” says Rettke, a three-time, All-American for the Badgers. “We’re usually inside the Field House in the nice parts of the day, so getting to see the sun has been really nice.”

What Rettke and her teammates don’t get to do this fall is what they want to do most of all—play volleyball. 

While football has returned to Camp Randall Stadium, the volleyball team’s season has been pushed to the spring semester. The typical August start date will move to January, with a national championship in the sport scheduled to be closer to Earth Day instead of close to Christmas.

“We’re just reversing the seasons,” said Badgers Coach Kelly Sheffield. “We’re treating the fall like a typical spring. We work out, we’re getting in good training sessions. With classes being online, when they get into the gym, they’re outside of their apartments and their dorms and it’s great.”

Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield directs his team during a workout at the UW Field House. The Badgers’ season usually runs from August to December but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it to an anticipated January start. (Photo by Bianca Miceli for UW Athletics)

Other fall sports at Wisconsin—soccer and cross-country—have also been pushed back to spring. But the volleyball team’s postponement messes with a season of high expectations. 

The Badgers were the national runners-up last season, losing to Stanford in the NCAA championship match. With most of the key players from that team returning, the Badgers had been the favorite to win the national title.

Now they wait to begin their season in the strangest of ways—while other teams play. 

Many other Division I schools are playing volleyball this fall, opting for a split season that will culminate with a national championship match in April. The Big Ten was joined by the Pac-12 Conference in sitting out the fall, a combination of teams that guts college volleyball. 

Three of the teams in last year’s Final Four were from the Big Ten or the Pac-12, and every national champion since 1999 except one (Texas in 2012) came from those conferences.

“It’s weird that teams across the country are doing different things,” says Sydney Hilley, another Badgers All-American. “We’re definitely a little jealous.”

Like most UW-Madison students, the volleyball players left school in March and didn’t return as classes moved online. The volleyball team usually has spring practices and exhibition matches, but those were scrapped as coaches and players waited to find out what might happen next. 

The Badgers returned for summer workouts in June, but soon were sent home because their season had been postponed. Players worked out as they could at home. Some have siblings they practiced with; Hilley was even able to work out with her mom, who played college volleyball for a year. 

Wisconsin volleyball player Sydney Hilley communicates with her teammates during a Badgers’ practice. As the team’s setter leading the team on the court, Hilley has had to adjust how she connects with teammates on the court because the mask muffles her voice and covers facial expressions. (Photo by Bianca Miceli for UW Athletics)

With no team workouts together, Sheffield decided to exercise another muscle of the Badgers: their minds. Besides team meetings via Zoom, the Badgers also had a book club and a documentary film club. They’d meet online to discuss books such as “Man’s Search for Meaning” or “The Boys in the Boat” or documentaries like the 10-part Michael Jordan series “The Last Dance” or “Inside Bill’s Mind” about Bill Gates.

“It had nothing to do with volleyball, which was great,” Sheffield said.

The team returned in August, with no certain date of when the season would start. The Badgers practice within the NCAA allotment of 20 hours a week of organized team activities. They wear masks at practice and sanitize their hands during water breaks. 

The coaches only see each other at practice. No one but players, coaches, and training staff are allowed in the gym. Everyone is tested for COVID-19 each Monday and will be tested twice a week when competition starts in January.

“It’s a little bit closer to normal,” Sheffield said. “These guys want to be in the gym. They’re doing what they love.”

The team has found the good they can take from the experience: more time with their families, more time with their labor-intensive online classes, more time for the freshmen to adjust. 

And being college students, the Badgers take this as a learning opportunity, even if it’s one they never expected to have. 

“We were just going about our lives like everything was normal, and then suddenly you can’t be around your friends or you can’t practice at all,” Rettke said. “I think never wasting an opportunity, not just for volleyball but for anything, is what I’ll take from this. Because it could be taken away in an instant.”