Danielle Hart scanned the list of players selected for the White Wave on the last day of the U.S. Women’s National Team Open Tryouts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
It read to her like a who’s who of the college volleyball world. After two days of strenuous training, U.S. Olympic team coach Karch Kiraly and his staff, along with a group of 14 evaluators, had selected the top 18 players from the 228 players participating to spend the day training with Kiraly in the USA gym.
The list included two of Hart’s University of Wisconsin teammates, middle blocker Dana Rettke and libero Tiffany Clark, along with celebrated players like Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris, Minnesota’s Stephanie Samedy, Purdue’s Danielle Cuttino and Jordyn Poulter of Illinois.
And then there was one name that didn’t seem like the others — Danielle Hart. Coming off a redshirt freshman season and looking forward to seeing her first collegiate action, Hart didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“Honestly, when I first looked at the list, I’d never been there or done any of that, and I’m like, wow this is a really small group,” said Hart, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker. “I’m looking at the names and there were some really good girls and I was just like, OK, another day, it will be cool.
“Then Dana texted me, ‘Congratulations, you made it. I’m so proud of you.’ I was like, Oh God, this is a big deal. Then I started realizing this is Karch’s gym that I just got invited to and I get to go play with these girls.
“I was literally walking in the gym still checking, making sure that it’s not a mistake, that I’m supposed to be in this gym. It was a very cool experience.”
Hart, Rettke and Clark were among seven Badgers participating in the tryouts March 2-4, joined by middle blocker Tionna Williams, opposite Madison Duello, libero M.E. Dodge and setter Sydney Hilley. That was among the largest contingents of any of the roughly 90 schools that sent players. In addition, assistant coach Gary White served as a court coach helping run workouts.
“We were like the Wisconsin pack walking around and people wanted to gravitate toward us,” Clark said.
The goal of the players was to be one of those selected to be on one of three collegiate national teams. The top two teams of 12 players each will play in events in Asia or Europe and the other team consisting of 24 players will play in a meet in Detroit. Those teams will be set later this month.
Clark played on the Junior National team last year, winning a gold medal at the Pan Am Cup. She attended tryouts last year and said the experience helped prepare her for what to expect.
“It’s really chaotic and you have to learn to focus on yourself and focus on your team,” Clark said. “You’re playing next to girls from Minnesota and teams that you really don’t like and you have to get over it. It was fun seeing some of the girls from other teams, especially Minnesota. It’s like, ‘I hate you, but it’s good to see you.’”
Clark, who began her career at Michigan, also gained insight into other programs by being around a mix of players.
“Something that’s really evident across every school is how their personalities reflect the program and the coaches they play for,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier to play at Wisconsin.”
UW was the only school to have three players chosen to train with the U.S. coaches on that last day. Clark said one of the messages stressed by Kiraly is that even the top players in the world still make mistakes and are still learning.
“That was really cool to hear,” she said. “I always put so much pressure on myself to be perfect and now I have the perspective that I don’t have to be perfect. The girls in the national team gym are not perfect. So what am I doing? Just play free. I found out that I play best when I play free and don’t put pressure on myself.”
As one of the least experienced players at the tryouts, Hart didn’t feel any real pressure. But having been picked for that top group certainly boosted her confidence and motivation.
“It just shows me that I’m starting to make some steps,” Hart said. “There’s still a lot to go and I’m just getting started, but after going and playing in there with the USA staff and those players, I look back and I’m like, what just happened?
“I look at my life right now and two years ago this was all I could think about, playing for a school at the top level and chasing national championships and playing with gnarly players. And all of it is starting to unfold, so it’s very cool.”
White said all seven of the UW players benefited from the experience.
“I think it allows them to see where they’re at,” he said. “It’s kind of like testing themselves. They get to compete with the best players in the country. There’s a lot of talent from a lot of programs there and for those seven kids I think they come out of it feeling energized about being able to compete at that level and coming back and saying there’s still more I can get better at and competing in this gym.”