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Molly Haggerty photo

UW outside hitter Molly Haggerty goes for the ball against Stanford during an NCAA regional final in 2016.

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

Molly Haggerty’s back.

Depending on how you say them, those three words represent either a source of major excitement or significant caution about the outlook for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.

Haggerty, the Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016, will make her return to competitive play Saturday in the opening spring exhibition match against Loyola-Chicago at the UW Field House.

It’s been 16 months since Haggerty’s most recent action against Stanford in the NCAA regional final, a match in which she was hampered by a lingering issue that led to surgery and an often-agonizing recovery period.

The prospect of Haggerty returning as an elite six-rotation outside hitter is one of the reasons the Badgers are considered among the favorites for the national championship this fall.

The anticipation of that happening, however, is muted by the knowledge her recovery remains a work in progress and back injuries are notoriously capricious.

Haggerty understands the story of her comeback cannot be written for months. For now, she’s just trying to live in the moment and savor the feeling of getting back into competition.

“It’s been a long time,” Haggerty said. “It’s a pretty big deal but at the same time I don’t like to hype myself up too much because then I play differently. I’m really, really excited to play, especially in front of our fans because I haven’t done that. They’ve been so supportive.”

Coach Kelly Sheffield cautions that fans expecting to see the dynamic player who led the team with 3.41 kills per set as a freshman and set a UW three-set record with 27 kills against Texas A&M will need some patience. The goal isn’t to reach peak efficiency in April, but rather August through December.

“There will be plenty of people in here who will be judging and saying she’s not here, she is this, she should be that,” Sheffield said. “I’ve talked to her about not being concerned about that. She’s got a plan, we’ve got a plan. She knows when she’s got to be good and let’s keep building on that.”

That’s a reminder Haggerty has to give herself all the time.

“I know I get frustrated if I’m not at my best and I know I’m not going to be at my best for this scrimmage,” Haggerty said. “But I’m really excited to show the fans all of the work I’ve been putting in to come back from my injuries.

“There’s good days and bad days. I feel like I’m never going to think I’m at my best just because even when I was at my best during my freshman year I was always like, ‘I (stink), I (stink).’ That’s what’s so hard. Even if I’m doing kind of good, I’m always like, ‘I can do even better.’

“But I think I’m getting there. It’s still going to take time with getting the strength back and just being comfortable with my body and how it’s changed.”

Haggerty said her back tightens up if she cools off during practice, but it feels fine if she keeps moving.

She got a chance to test herself against outside competition last Friday when the Badgers practiced against Marquette in Milwaukee. She said she felt like she was full go in the back court, but was a little tentative at the net.

“I think I was taking it easy front row because I don’t know how my back is going to react when I’m taking a bunch of swings in that type of game,” said Haggerty, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall. “I didn’t want it to flare up just from doing something like that.

“Even in practice I am holding back a little bit. Kelly has been on me about accelerating and being aggressive but I think there’s a part of me that’s still holding back and protecting myself. I’m really hoping and waiting for the moment when I just let loose.”

Setter Sydney Hilley was in high school when she got to see Haggerty let loose during her freshman year, and she’s seeing signs of that player returning.

“She’s working so hard,” said Hilley, who will be a sophomore. “You can tell that she wants nothing more than to be back where she was. She’s on her own weight room program trying to get her strength back.

“She was on a limited number of everything when I was first here and now she’s fully back. It was really cool the day that she took her first couple swings. She’s getting back there, slowly but surely.”

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