During a timeout in only the second match of the season, fifth-year senior Dana Rettke sensed unprecedented potential for her University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team.
“We were just firing on all cylinders [against Baylor]. Incredible. It was electric. It’s why you play sports,” Rettke said.
“I was on the bench. I run over and I’m high fiving and thinking to myself, ‘This team is going to win a national championship.’ It was so vivid in my mind. If that’s the way we’re playing [Aug. 28], I’m so excited to see our growth and improvement the rest of the season.”
Rettke’s premonition became reality on Dec. 18.
For the first time, the Badgers won the NCAA championship by outlasting Big Ten Conference rival Nebraska 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12 in Columbus, Ohio.
A 2017 Riverside-Brookfield High School graduate, Rettke had 11 kills and 13 of an NCAA championship-match record 24 blocks by the No. 4-ranked Badgers (31-3).
The 6-foot-8 middle blocker was among many Wisconsin veterans who lost in the 2019 final to Stanford and the 2020-21 semifinals to Texas in April. Wisconsin also was national runner-up in 2013 and 2000.
“It’s so much a testament not only to the team but all of the people who helped build this program that came before us,” Rettke said in a phone interview Dec. 20.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. It’s been like a crazy couple of days. The more I have that hat on and the more I see the trophy, it sinks in that we are national champions.”
This season, Rettke also achieved personal history.
Rettke became Wisconsin’s first American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year after being 2017 Freshman of the Year. She also is the first five-time AVCA first-team All-American and among the first two five-time All-Big Ten First Team selections.
Rettke is Wisconsin’s career leader in points (2,333), attack percentage (.422), total blocks (751) and block assists (660) and second in kills (1,821).
With the 2020-21 season abbreviated by COVID-19, the NCAA permitted athletes an additional year of eligibility. Rettke was among Wisconsin’s four graduate student players along with All-America setter Sydney Hilley, her roommate the past four seasons.
Fittingly, the national championship point came on Rettke’s final collegiate kill — the only time all match she didn’t face a block.
“It was unreal. The set that Sydney made to generate that kill was just – I don’t even know I have a word for it,” Rettke said. “It was not me. It was Sydney putting me in a great spot to get that kill.”
Rettke grew up loving — and still loves — basketball. She happened to love volleyball more and followed that passion in high school.
At RBHS, she amassed 2,688 career kills and continued progressing through club experience with 1st Alliance. Wisconsin teammate Lauren Barnes also played with Rettke at 1st Alliance.
“When I told my dad I was National Player of the Year, he was like, ‘Who would have thought you’d end up here?’ Not me, that’s for sure,” Rettke said.
“It was pretty cool but I can’t do any of that without my teammates. I enjoy all of those accolades for the team and individually, but I want to be remembered for loving my teammates more than anything and bringing a positive spirit in the gym.”
Wisconsin defeated No. 1-ranked and previously undefeated Louisville in a five-set semifinal. During the season, the Badgers beat No. 10-ranked Nebraska (26-8) in three and four sets en route to a third straight Big Ten title.
“The [championship] level of play was just incredible. Nebraska had some crazy plays. We had some crazy plays,” Rettke said. “We kind of knew what to expect, but it was just great volleyball all around.”
Rettke plans to play professionally in January with hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team. Rettke trained and competed with the U.S. national team in 2019, winning the Nations Volleyball League as the U.S. qualified for the Summer Olympics.
In August, the U.S. women won in Tokyo for their first gold medal.
“Oh, my God. I was crying. I played with that core group,” Rettke said. “Absolutely insane. I was so excited for them and the coaching staff.”