A pair of Badger buddies have picked up right where they left off from their college volleyball days at the University of Wisconsin.
Danielle Hart and Sydney Hilley were reunited on Team Edmond for the first week of 2023 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball in Mesa, Arizona. The duo helped their team to a 3-0 record, with Hilley finishing the weekend fourth on the individual leaderboard and Hart fifth.
A dynamic duo indeed.
“Oh, it’s so awesome,” Hilley said. “It kind of feels like there’s a piece of home with me. We’ve been on the same team the first two weeks, with the scrimmage and the first week of actual games. So it’s been awesome. I just go hang out with her constantly, drive to practice together.
“It really is awesome because there are so many different hitters you have to connect with and learn what they like. With Dan and me, it’s just second nature, so I don’t have to worry about that at all. I just kind of toss it up there and she knows what to do. It’s really fun being on the same team with her and just having her here.”
While at Wisconsin, Hilley, a setter, played in 148 matches and became the Badgers’ all-time career assists leader, with 6,138.
Hart, a middle blocker, had a six-year tenure for the Badgers, playing in 112 matches and finishing with 596 career kills. She was one of six players selected in the 2023 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball College Draft.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” she said of being drafted. “I think the opportunity to play in the United States is huge. I’m not sure I would be continuing my career if it weren’t for the opportunity in the United States. I’m obviously very thrilled to be here.”
Hart and Hilley enjoyed unprecedented success at Wisconsin, culminating in an NCAA national championship in 2021. Hart was a member of that team, but she could not play after tearing her ACL during a September practice.
The injury affected everyone, not just Hart.
“That was really hard,” Hilley said. “As soon as she went down in practice, I was heartbroken and devastated because she was such a big part of our team and our program. She was having a great start to her year, and she was going to be a big impact player. So when she went down, I thought our chances of going anywhere were out the window.
“But she had such a great approach. She was at every practice. She was just like a captain. She was looking in from the outside at some points and acting like a coach and contributing in whatever way she could. Without her, we would not have won, even though she didn’t step on the court. To have her there after winning the championship and her just being so happy for all of us and so selfless even though it’s got to be hard not actually playing when you know you could have been out there.”
The injury changed Hart’s future, a future she already was pondering before she got hurt.
“The day I tore my ACL, I had been on a phone call with (Badgers coach) Kelly Sheffield, and we were just talking about my future pro career in the sport and what kind of opportunities I would have in front of me,” she said. “He was asking if there was any way he could get me back for my sixth year of eligibility. I told him, ‘Kelly, I think my time’s up,’ and that I would be moving on with my class that I came in with, but that I had decided to stick around for the extra COVID year.”
Then things changed.
“That afternoon, I came down on somebody under the net and tore my ACL,” she said. “First, I was in denial that it was even a thing. I had shifted my kneecap over or something. Once I learned that I had torn my ACL after they did the test in the training room, I knew that I had to come back. It was that quick for me. I went from, ‘There’s no way I will be back for this next year,’ to, ‘I have no choice but to be back this following year.’
“I felt I still had things I wanted to do and leave at Wisconsin. I just gave it everything to make it back with the goal of playing in every game the following season, and I was able to fulfill that goal.”
Instead of being bitter and down about the injury, Hart made the best of it and lifted her teammates up as she rehabbed.
“Oh, definitely, because seeing her go through that and all her rehab and fight to come back,” Hilley said. “For us it was such an inspiration, a source of motivation for us to do well for her as well the other things, of course: bringing it back to Wisconsin for the first time ever and all the players who had come before us to shape that culture. It’s a combination of a lot of things but definitely Danielle was one of those inspirations for us.
“But she’s also just been an inspiration every day in life. She just appreciates every single opportunity every day and tries to find the positive thing in everything. That’s always been something that’s rubbed off on me. That’s why I’m so glad, or one of the reasons, I’m so glad that she’s here with me, because she helps me realize all the little things that we get to do and how awesome every opportunity is.”
Hart did go back to Wisconsin even as Hilley and other teammates graduated. The extra year provided Hart the opportunity to become a leader of younger players.
“That was a really special year, and it might even be my favorite year because it brought something out of me that I didn’t know I was capable of and challenged me in different ways that I never could have been challenged before, having to step into such a big leadership role,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to say I was happy I tore my ACL, but I’m truly at a point where I can say I’m truly grateful that I did tear my ACL. There are so many relationships and so many turns in my path that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and things that I learned and got to experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
“It certainly is really, really hard and in many ways. I’m still dealing with remnants of that. It is definitely worth it and has been so rewarding. A lot of it, just like life, is what you make of it.”
Reunited at Athletes Unlimited, Hart and Hilley are beginning a new journey together. Hilley got back to Wisconsin last spring on AU’s volleyball tour of college campuses.
“The tour was awesome,” she said. “The highlight was definitely going back to Wisconsin. It was super fun. I felt like I was back in college again.”
Hilley provided a scouting report on Hart after a week’s play in Mesa.
“No. 1, I think her blocking is on fire right now,” Hilley said. “She is just flying in there right now, closing all the blocks, getting her hands over, just huge stuff blocks. That’s one thing to look for. Another thing is her serve. Her serve is really good. It’s flat. It’s floaty. She’s already had a couple of aces. That’s been really good. I think her slide is also a weapon, her slide attack. She hits at a very high percentage, and she can work the ball around. Just her all-around game is something to watch.”
Of course, the feeling is mutual coming from the other side.
“I couldn’t think higher of Syd,” Hart said. “Syd’s always been somebody who I have looked up to from the moment I started getting recruited to Wisconsin. She started recruiting me, I guess, for Wisconsin. Just the way Syd goes about things is always the right way. I quickly grabbed onto the way that she approaches things.
“She is just a master at balancing out the court and her hitters and getting everybody to fire on all cylinders. She does a really good job of keeping the blockers on the other side guessing and having to make strong reads. She does a great job of putting the ball in really nice areas for people to make things happen.”
One of the most interesting aspects of all Athletes Unlimited sports is that captains draft new teams each week. Hart and Hilley have been teammates for Weeks One and Two. But it’s quite possible they will be facing each other from opposite sides of the net.
“It’s going to be really weird because that hasn’t happened yet,” Hilley said. “She’s played really well so far. I’m sure she’ll go really high in the draft. Her blocking has been great. Her serving has been great. Her attacking has been great. I think people also know that we work really well together, so it kind of works if you draft us as a package deal.”
Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago are for more than 40 years, including baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112
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