By Vicki L. Friedman | Oct 25, 2018
Special to espnW
Each week during the volleyball season, we’ll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.
Dana Rettke isn’t done growing.
At 6-foot-8, the Wisconsin middle blocker already towers over many of her teammates as well as her 6-foot-6 father. She can slip into a men’s size 12 shoe and afford to indulge in an extra spoonful of Badger Blast ice cream (the dorm delicacy, chocolate with fudge swirls and dark chocolate flakes, is a favorite). She weighed in at 10 pounds, 6 ounces, 22½ inches long at birth. Ever since she could talk, she has fielded questions about standing so tall.
But the growth she’s most excited about these days has nothing to do with height and everything to do with perfecting every intricacy in a game she didn’t consider playing in college until she was a high school upperclassman.
That’s why being named the nation’s best freshman by the American Volleyball Coaches Association last fall left her shocked.
“I really didn’t see myself in that class,” she said.
Rettke, who grew up in suburban Chicago, tried multiple sports and settled on basketball, picturing herself wearing an Iowa uniform someday. Then a funny feeling came over her riding home from an AAU tournament in Champaign. As much as she liked basketball, she didn’t see herself playing it in college.
“I didn’t think my body would hold up if I stayed with basketball,” she said. “I loved the physicality, getting in the dirt and grinding and defending. But compared to the girls I saw on TV and scrimmaging with the girls at Illinois that day, my height wasn’t going to cut it. I had to be stronger and even more physical. I knew my body would break apart because of that.”
That’s when her interest in volleyball took off.
Problem was, Rettke wasn’t particularly good at it. She played for fun, thinking that if a collegiate opportunity did come along, it would be with a small program.
She surely wasn’t expecting to be part of the nation’s top recruiting class in 2017.
Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield attended the first club tournament she ever played in. He was underwhelmed by her skill level but intrigued by the potential of the high school sophomore.
“She was a tall kid running around out there,” he said.
“I was awful,” she agreed.
Sheffield was impressed by how light Rettke was on her feet. He noted her lateral movement. He watched her serve as a line judge in one match, and during a timeout he saw her dribble a volleyball. Hand-eye coordination? Another check in her box.
The next year when Rettke participated in Badgers volleyball camp, he saw not just a willingness to learn but the ease by which she did it. The fundamentals came quickly.
“I didn’t have any bad habits to break because I picked up the sport so late,” she said. “My love for volleyball took off. I wanted to be in the gym all the time.”
Now the Badgers sophomore is light years ahead of her former self with a ceiling that not even she can touch. She’s the reigning AVCA and Big Ten player of the week following a 10-block, 12-kill performance in Wisconsin’s five-set win last Friday over Nebraska. Two days later, she hit .739 — 17 kills, 0 errors — against Iowa.
She’s averaging more kills, blocks and points per set than she did a year ago when she was named a first-team All-American. She received that honor along with the freshman of the year accolade at a luncheon at the final four.
Sheffield said that often players who aren’t participating in the final weekend can be somewhat glum spectators. Rettke sat glued — studying and making mental notes of little things she could do to improve.
“I don’t think she’s taken a massive jump since last year; it’s been a consistent rise,” Sheffield said.
Rettke wasn’t satisfied with her blocking earlier this season, struggling to get good touches. She labeled it “a disaster,” and studied herself on film and worked with an assistant coach on the mechanics.
“Now it feels a lot better,” said Rettke, who realized her hands were the problem. Because she’s so tall, she’s sensitive about protecting her face, though she laughs at the “nose kill” against Illinois that made the rounds on social media.
“That was so funny,” she said. “What are the odds of that happening?”
When Rettke first arrived on campus the spring of her high school senior year, Sheffield had every intention of giving her a redshirt season. But she was too good for that. The trajectory upward continues.
“I didn’t really expect much of myself,” she said. “Last year I didn’t understand why I would do certain things in a situation. Now I understand changing things on the floor, seeing the court more, seeing the block in front of me, seeing the ball and maybe changing the play.”
Her goal now is certainly high enough: She plans to do everything in her power to lead No. 7 Wisconsin (14-4, 7-3) to its first NCAA title.
“When you think she’s been playing this game for five years, it’s really remarkable the path she’s been on,” Sheffield said. “Every top team has an aircraft carrier. She’s our aircraft carrier.”