Wisconsin's volleyball team had played in the previous two NCAA Final Fours, losing to Stanford in the title game in the fall of 2019 and to Texas in the semifinals in the spring of 2021.
The Badgers had much of their strength back for the return to normal play for this fall. They were 8-0 in nonconference matches and 24-2 in sets, losing one apiece to top 10 teams Baylor and Kentucky.
Danielle Hart, an excellent senior blocker, suffered a torn ACL in practice late in the nonconference schedule. And then the Badgers, ranked No. 2 in the country, lost their Big Ten opener on Sept. 24 to Maryland, a middling program in the toughest conference in the country.
Linda Hilley, monitoring these events with husband Pat in Fergus Falls, Minn., was so nervous over this that she called her son Mike with a message for granddaughter Sydney, the Badgers' All-America setter.
"Grandma said she didn't think we were even going to make the tournament,'' Sydney said. "My reaction was, 'Surprising loss, Grandma, but I wouldn't go that far.' ''
Hilley gave a wide smile that came off as love for Grandma. It was Thursday morning and Sydney was sitting on a bench in the huge gym that's home to the Minnesota Select Volleyball Club in Maple Grove.
Things had worked out very well for the Badgers and Hilley in the three months since the Maryland upset.
Wisconsin had won a third straight Big Ten title. The Badgers had reached the Final Four by sweeping the Gophers in a regional final, a sixth straight win over their westerly rivals.
And then last week in Columbus, Ohio, this occurred:
On Dec. 15, Dana Rettke, the 6-foot-8 middle blocker, was named a first-team All-America for the fifth time, and Hilley, the 6-foot setter from Champlin Park High School, for the third straight time.
As a tremendous bonus, Hilley also was announced as the 2021 Senior CLASS Award winner for volleyball in the NCAA's Division I, which numbers 334 teams.
The CLASS award honors overall excellence in academics, community efforts, character and competition. It is voted on nationwide by coaches, media and fans.
On Dec. 16, the No. 4 Badgers defeated No. 1 Louisville in five grueling sets in the semifinals. "Louisville was a tremendous team,'' Hilley said Thursday.
On Dec. 17, Rettke was named as the national player of the year, a first for the Badgers.
On Dec. 18, the Badgers defeated No. 10 Nebraska in five grueling sets to win their first national title. "Nebraska … that's always going to be tough,'' Hilley said.
This time, the finish was extra-tough. The Badgers were leading 14-11 in the fifth set and were awarded a point on a wayward Nebraska shot.
"We jumped around, we celebrated the win, and then found out Nebraska asked for a review,'' Hilley said. "None of us thought there was a touch. The review went against us, though, and now it was 14-12. For a few seconds, there's that thought, 'What happens now?'"
What happened was an incredible volley, with tremendous rescues for both teams, until finally Hilley offered a set over the back of her head to Rettke at the right post.
"Dana was open and put it away,'' Hilley said. "It was a better finish than if the review had gone our way. A lot of Badgers fans said this and we felt it, too: 'Hilley to Rettke' was the perfect way for it to end.'
"Dana and I moved into Madison as early enrollees in January 2017. There were three of us at the time — Mariah Whalen transferred later — and we were together all the time, learning what it took to succeed in college.
"Dana and I became best friends then, and to be jumping around together as champions almost five years later, with Lauren Barnes and all our other great teammates … it was the best.''
Hilley, Rettke and Barnes, a libero transfer from Minnesota starting in 2019, were back for fifth seasons due to the NCAA's COVID freebie.
"If the NCAA had not made the decision — that whatever COVID season was held would not count in eligibility — none of the seniors were going to play a shortened season,'' Hilley said. "We were going to call it a redshirt and hope for a normal season in the fall. We wanted one more full season and another chance at a championship.''
The COVID delays did cause Hilley to put even greater academic demands on herself. She graduated in December 2020 with a degree in genetics and genomics. She now has two classes left to acquire a master's in applied biotechnology.
Sydney has a stated goal of becoming a cancer researcher. Her maternal grandmother, Sandy Cawley, dealt with breast cancer. She died in 2004 as an offshoot of experimental treatment she had received for the cancer.
Grandfather Jerry Cawley was the third baseman on the Gophers' 1964 NCAA championship baseball team, and then the captain and catcher in 1965.
"One of my favorite photos is me as a small girl, with my Cawley grandparents at Williams Arena, before a basketball game,'' Hilley said.
She also went to many Gophers volleyball matches. She was a fan then and became an admiring rival to Hugh McCutcheon's program and Gophers such as All-America setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson and superstar Stephanie Samedy.
"I committed to Wisconsin as a high school freshman,'' Hilley said. "It felt right then and that never changed. And our coach, Kelly Sheffield … I think he's secretly a genius.''
As for beloved Grandma Linda, who can blame her for that premature apprehension up there in Fergus Falls? She probably follows the Vikings.