Badgers' fifth-year seniors returned for one more shot at an NCAA women's volleyball title. They get it Saturday.

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Wisconsin sophomore Devyn Robinson hit .389 in Badgers' national semifinal victory over Louisville on Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio.
Wisconsin sophomore Devyn Robinson hit .389 in Badgers' national semifinal victory over Louisville on Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio.

They put their lives on hold for a year and returned to Wisconsin with one goal in mind:

Win the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball title.

Kelly Sheffield’s indefatigable team, led by a quintet of fifth-year seniors, is one victory away from achieving that goal.

“I think everyone who comes to Wisconsin, that is one of the reasons they come here,” fifth-year senior setter Sydney Hilley said.

“To make history and win a national championship.”

Fellow fifth-year senior Dana Rettke added: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The fourth-seeded Badgers (30-3) face Big Ten rival and 10th-seeded Nebraska (26-7) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The match is to be televised by ESPN2.

UW, making its fourth appearance in the title match, is seeking its first national title.

Nebraska, led by former UW coach John Cook, is making its 10th appearance in the title match and seeking its sixth title.

Cook won his first of four titles in 2000, his first season as Nebraska’s head coach. The team the Cornhuskers rallied to defeat in five sets in the final that season?

Wisconsin, coached by Cook’s successor, Pete Waite.

“You’re not going to hear anybody say anything poor about Nebraska,” Sheffield said. “That’s not because we don’t want to give them any bulletin-board material. It’s because there is a genuine level of respect for what is going on there. ...

“Look how many banners they have. We want a banner. We’ve been close. We’ve been painfully close. And that’s something that is driving everybody."

The Badgers have reached the Final Four in each of the last three seasons and four times overall in Sheffield’s nine seasons as head coach.

UW was swept by Stanford in the 2019 title match and by Texas in the national semifinals last season.

UW reached the 2013 title match, Sheffield’s first season in Madison, but lost in four sets to Penn State.

The loss to Texas spurred Rettke, Hilley, Lauren Barnes, Grace Loberg and Giorgia Civita to return for their fifth seasons.

UW reached the title match by ousting No. 1-seeded and previously unbeaten Louisville in five sets on Thursday.

The Cardinals extended the match by taking the fourth set, 25-23. Near the end of that set, Sheffield reminded his players they were made for such battles.

“They hear me say it all the time,” he said. “To be able to play in front of this environment, this crowd, that kind of team and the work, that is why they came back."

UW and Nebraska met twice this during the regular season. The Badgers swept the Cornhuskers on Oct. 27 in Lincoln and then won the rematch in four sets Nov. 26 in Madison.

“This team that just competed tonight is completely different to the team that played them a couple of weeks ago and light years different to the one that played them earlier on in the season,” Nebraska senior middle blocker Laura Stivrins said after the Cornhuskers ousted Pittsburgh in the semifinals. “And, so, I think we're more prepared and more ready than we've ever been."

This appears to be Sheffield's best team at UW.

Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke, one of the Badgers' five fifth-year seniors,  was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the year Friday.
Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke, one of the Badgers' five fifth-year seniors, was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the year Friday.

Rettke was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) national player of the year on Friday. She is the first UW player to receive that honor and was the first UW player to be named the AVCA national freshman of the year. Earlier this week she became the AVCA's first five-time, first-team All-American.

Hilley was the Big Ten setter of the year and was named an AVCA first-team All-American for the third consecutive season.

Barnes, who played her first two seasons at Minnesota before transferring to UW in 2019, was a second-team All-American for the second consecutive season.

"It's not just the Dana Rettke show," Sheffield said.

That was obvious in the semifinals when freshman Anna Smrek had 20 kills and hit .704, Barnes had a match-high 19 digs, Hilley contributed 58 assists and 11 digs and sophomore Devyn Robinson hit .389.

"That win really sticks out to me because it was such a team effort," Rettke said. "Across the board, everybody had something to contribute. Everyone made big plays in big moments."

The biggest moment comes Saturday night, particularly for the fifth-year players who opted to return for one more run together.

Sheffield was asked if he took a moment Friday to savor the last practice with Rettke, Hilley and Barnes.

"No, we've got work to do," he said. "We'll get in a group hug at a later time."

Perhaps sometime Saturday night.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin faces Big Ten foe Nebraska in NCAA women's volleyball final

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