CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Molly Haggerty is not one of the official captains for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team. Those duties are shared by Sydney Hilley, Tiffany Clark and M.E. Dodge.
But Haggerty has a slightly different leadership role.
“She’s captain of our fight, our fighting spirit,” coach Kelly Sheffield said.
Haggerty’s primary qualification for that position, Sheffield said, is her swagger.
It is an innate part of the personality of Haggerty, the redshirt sophomore outside hitter who is coming off three consecutive double-doubles as the sixth-seeded Badgers (24-6) head into their NCAA tournament Sweet 16 match Friday against San Diego (18-12). The winner of that match will meet the winner of today’s other semifinal between No. 3 Illinois (30-3) and No. 14 Marquette (28-6) on Saturday for a berth in the final four next week.
That swagger may have ebbed at times this season as she has slowly worked her way back from back surgery that sidelined her all of last season. But as her play has improved down the stretch, offering reminders of the dominant player she was as a freshman, her confident persona has returned in full force.
“She’s got a swagger to her that I won’t say had been missing but has continued to grow,” said Sheffield, noting her play has improved in all facets of the game, from attacking to serving, to passing and defending. “She’s been a complete player for us, which has been huge for us. I think a lot of our players are really playing pretty well right now but I don’t know if anybody’s taken a bigger jump in her game the last month than Molly has.
“She’s being more resilient through tougher times than probably what she was in the middle of the season. That’s been a huge benefit to us, to her teammates. When she is fired up and feeling pretty good, she takes everybody with her.”
That’s the goal, says Haggerty, who defines swagger as demonstrating a confidence that carries over to her teammates.
“I think it’s just having a lot of confidence and people looking at you and gaining confidence,” she said. “It’s just being that strength and toughness of the team. That’s kind of what I like to be known for.”
Haggerty said she’s always had a certain swagger about her, likely the product of growing up the youngest of four children who all would grow up to be Division I athletes.
“I’d like to think that I always had it,” she said. “It brings me back to when I was younger and my older siblings were always pushing me and wanted me to do my best and I think that made me confident and have a little bit of an ego, wanting to up them always. I think that’s when I started getting that swagger.
“It’s just how you’re feeling about yourself and I’m feeling really confident lately. When I’m in the moment and I’m feeling good, that’s when I have the most swagger. Toward the end of the season, that’s when I’ve really gotten a lot of confidence so I think it’s showing more and more in the matches.”
Haggerty, who was Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American in 2016, has not performed to that level much of this season. But her play has picked up in recent weeks, peaking last week in the first two rounds of the tournament as she led the team in kills (3.14 per set) and digs (4.71) while hitting .339 in the victories over UW-Green Bay and Pepperdine.
Senior Tionna Williams, one of the few Badgers who played alongside Haggerty two years ago, thinks it was unrealistic to think she wouldn’t have some issues over the course of her comeback.
“Obviously, she had back surgery and that’s not something to take lightly,” Williams said. “To come back from back surgery and be able to play at a high level is admirable on its own. But she definitely lost a little bit of confidence after that surgery because she couldn’t do things the same way that she had before.
“This year from the start to where we are now, you can definitely see her confidence level getting a lot higher. She’s just playing with a lot more freedom and a lot more fun.”
Sophomore Grace Loberg, Haggerty’s counterpart as a six-rotation outside hitter, was still in high school when Haggerty was tearing up the Big Ten. But as a fellow Chicago-area prep (Loberg at Geneva and Fusion Volleyball Club; Haggerty at St. Francis and Sports Performance) Loberg had long known her by reputation.
“I’ve known Molly Haggerty, that name, since I started volleyball,” Loberg said. “She was on an opposing club but everybody on my club knew Molly Haggerty and knew she was the best player. To come here and be so close with her and get to play with her is awesome.
“I think that Molly just exudes so much confidence, just the way she walks around so tall. You can tell that there’s no doubt in her mind and she’s ready to pummel anyone that’s across the net. She has so much swagger in the way she communicates on the court. She’ll go like, ‘Lean on me, I’ve got you guys.’”
Ironically, the one time Haggerty had to suppress her natural swagger was during her big freshman season, when her role was to listen to and learn from senior team leaders Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson.
“My freshman year it was really weird for me coming in and not having that voice because I always was that person that people listened to and went to,” Haggerty said. “That was a different role for me because I got to hear Carlini and Nelly talk more.
“But this year I think that now I’m that voice that people want to listen to and people go to. I love that. I love being that person that’s talking in the big moments and others are getting strength from. I think definitely this year I’m that voice.”