Mariah Whalen photo

Mariah Whalen, a 6-1 outside hitter, led Wausau Newman to four state titles and was twice named to the all-state first team.

Sydney Hilley, Mariah Whalen and Dana Rettke couldn’t wait to get their University of Wisconsin volleyball careers going.

So they didn’t.

Those three highly regarded recruits decided to graduate early from high school and enroll at UW in January so they could participate in spring practice and get a head start on their freshman seasons.

So instead of waiting until August, the trio will make their debut tonight at the UW Field House when the Badgers host UW-Green Bay in their only home spring match.

Early enrollees are relatively common in football, but they are the first three volleyball players to do it since coach Kelly Sheffield’s first season at UW when middle blocker Tori Blake arrived a semester early.

All three of the newcomers are pleased with their decisions to get an early start.

“I’m so happy,” said Whalen, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Wausau Newman. “I can’t even imagine coming in here in the fall. With everything you have to do and get figured out, I’m just glad I was able to come in and figure it out early.”

Truth be told, Sheffield wasn’t completely sold on the idea in principle. And in the cases of Whalen and Rettke, he played devil’s advocate when they were considering coming in early.

“I’ve really been leery about people graduating early,” he said. “It’s not something I’m a massive fan of. I don’t want them to have regrets, so we try to push the other side of it. Sometimes the grass is always greener and then you get into it and you realize this kind of stinks.

“They’re about the only three people on campus that are walking around the first couple weeks that have no idea where they’re going. From the volleyball standpoint it makes a lot of sense, but not necessarily for the other parts of their lives. But for these three it has been really good. There is a real nice maturity to all three of them. They’re kicking butt with the workouts.”

For Hilley, there was never really any question that she would get an early start. That was part of her plan when she committed to UW as a freshman at Champlin Park High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, knowing that she would be succeeding Lauren Carlini as setter.

“Part of the recruiting process with (Sydney) was she wanted to go to a school that was going to allow her to graduate early and step in,” Sheffield said. “I’m not so sure she would be a Badger if we had not allowed her to do that.”

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Still, Hilley admits she felt a little anxiety when the time came.

“As soon as I committed here I knew I kind of wanted to do it, but it was so far off,” she said. “By the time I actually had to leave I was like, oh my gosh, I’m not ready to be in college.

“But then I got here and I’m so happy I did it. I’m already having so much fun and I’m learning so much and that’s going to make me better for the fall, having made that connection already with everybody.”

All three say the experience has been easier with two others going through the same things.

“I can’t imagine coming in early on my own,” said Whalen, whose brother Jake is a sophomore on the UW football team. “That would be so tough. I can definitely tell the age gap. It’s weird not having people our age here. That will be fun in the fall when we start to make friends with people our age in other sports.”

Whalen and Rettke share an apartment, while Hilley moved into an apartment with juniors-to-be Madison Duello, Amber MacDonald and Julia Saunders.

“I love living on my own,” said Rettke, a 6-8 middle blocker from Riverside, Illinois. “I’m just a very independent person so I was super happy to come and just do my own thing. I love living with Mariah. We’re best friends and we do everything together.

“I miss my friends back home but we Facetime all the time. I can’t really say that I miss high school. It wasn’t really my fave. At spring break I went back to my school and surprised all my friends. It was so strange to me. It’s just so different.”

Not that there haven’t been a few welcome-to-college moments.

Like when Whalen and sophomore-to-be Mallory Dixon were sent to the locker room at the start of the first practice because of the way they were peppering. “I was like, oh my gosh, I had no idea,” Whalen said. “I’d never gotten kicked out of practice before.”

And all three learned that things can work differently in the classroom.

“Our first week me and Mariah and Syd were all coasting and we were like this is great, we don’t have homework, this is so much better than high school,” Rettke said. “Then we figured out the teacher wouldn’t tell you everything you had to do, you have to look at the syllabus. And then we found out we were a week behind. So now we know we have to look at the syllabus.

“But otherwise, this is the best thing I could’ve done. I’m so happy. No regrets.”


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