Ordinarily, Friday would be the mother of all Senior Days for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
But, of course, there is nothing ordinary about this COVID-19-impacted volleyball season.
In a normal season the Badgers and their fans would be saying an emotional farewell to as many as eight seniors, many of whom have played major roles in one of the most successful runs in program history.
But with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility, uncertainty among several players as to their futures and the absence of fans in the UW Field House, the decision was made to push back any senior recognition until a team banquet later this spring.
Count Molly Haggerty among the disappointed. As the most senior of the seniors, Haggerty has watched four Senior Days or Nights over her career and couldn’t help imagining her own moment.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” said Haggerty, who has yet to declare whether she plans to return in the fall for a potential sixth season. “Being here for 4½ years and seeing the other seniors getting a standing ovation and thanking and appreciating the crowd is something I always was dreaming of and excited for when that day was finally my own. So I am super, super bummed that I won’t be able to have that this year.”
While all that would’ve been nice, especially if it had happened last November as in a normal year, Haggerty and her teammates have other priorities as they attempt to grab their second consecutive Big Ten Conference title and get primed for a run at the program’s first NCAA championship.
The No. 1 ranked Badgers (13-0) can wrap up the conference crown with a victory over Michigan (4-7) either Thursday night or Friday afternoon. It would be the third conference title since coach Kelly Sheffield arrived in 2013 and the seventh in program history. Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota have each won two titles in that time. The last back-to-back champion was Penn State in 2012-13.
“Winning the Big Ten title means more than anything right now,” Haggerty said. “And when I think about the tournament I think about how we’re all dialed in because we know how much work we’ve put in since last spring. Now it’s our time to shine. We’ve been off for so long with matches being canceled and so much craziness so I think we have so much determination right now.”
As the matches gain importance, Sheffield expects Haggerty’s role in the team’s balanced offense will only grow.
“When the lights are brightest she’s as good a player as I’ve ever been around,” Sheffield said. “Not only does she not flinch in those moments, she lives for them. It is oxygen for her to play in big moments. She has no fear and I think things slow down for her and she executes.
“She’s always been like that. Her numbers in the NCAA tournament or when we’re playing the best teams, she performs at a really high level. And when you’re doing that over the course of years, there’s a trust that goes into that. You don’t worry about Molly in those moments. You know you’re going to get her bringing it to the best of her ability.”
Haggerty ranks 18th in program history with 1,117 career kills and could rise as high as 14th with a good tournament run.
The ability to come through in big moments is hard wired into Haggerty, honed during her high school and club days when she led Sports Performance to four consecutive AAU national championships and was twice named the tournament MVP.
“I have 100 percent confidence in myself that I will rise up in those moments because of all the training over all the years allows me to be able to rise in those moments,” she said. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence from those matches, knowing that I can be the one who’s getting the big kill at the end. Over time it’s made me almost like a rock, like I’m going to be the strongest one on the team and I’m going to have everyone on my back.”
Haggerty’s back has been a significant part of her story as a Badgers player. After a dynamic freshman season in 2016, she underwent back surgery and sat out the following year. She returned in 2018 but was not the same player. She came back in 2019 to earn second-team All-America honors, one of just eight players in program history to be a multi-year All-American.
Sheffield said one of the biggest areas of growth in Haggerty over the years has been her embracing a leadership role.
“More than just a really good player, she’s become a really strong leader for our team,” Sheffield said. “We have a lot of young players and she’s taken it very seriously to lead by example on and off the court.”
Haggerty attributes that largely to maturity and a sense of empathy derived from her own struggles coming back from injury.
“When I was a freshman I thought that I was mature and I had my stuff together,” she said. “Now, looking back I laugh because I was so naive. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I was focused on was volleyball and that was it.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed about myself is I think I’ve become a better teammate just because of everything I had to go through. I think it’s easy when you don’t have obstacles in your life to be tough on yourself and tough on other people. So going through that made me realize that people’s mental, emotional and physical health really does matter and I’ve tried to focus on that with each and every one of my teammates.”
After being held out from three matches because of minor knee issues, Haggerty said she’s feeling great and this week reached her all-time best jump of 10-feet-1.
Haggerty will graduate in May with a degree in human development and family studies. Whenever her UW career ends, she plans to play professionally overseas and eventually would like to be a college assistant coach, with UW assistant Brittany Dildine as her role model.
But for now her attention is focused on the tasks at hand, from the Michigan matches to the tournament.
“Overall, we’re mentally really locked in right now,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for so long that we’re not going to let any distractions get in our way.”