Early on in Dana Rettke’s first spring of workouts with the University of Wisconsin volleyball team, coach Kelly Sheffield called her and All-American setter Lauren Carlini over for a little chat.
Carlini was working out in preparation for playing for the U.S. National team, while Rettke was hoping to be able to get on the court as a freshman for the Badgers.
Out of the blue, Sheffield asked Rettke if she’d spent much time thinking about playing on the national team someday. “She said, ‘A little bit … not much,’” Sheffield recalled.
He turned to Carlini and asked what she thought after watching Rettke work out for a few weeks.
“She looks at Dana,” he said, “and says, ‘You need to start thinking about it.’”
A little more than a year later there’s no ceiling to the expectations for Rettke, the 6-foot-8 middle blocker, as she prepares for her sophomore year.
Less than five years after taking up the sport, Rettke has established herself as one of the elite players in the nation. It’s a turn of events that Rettke still finds herself trying to process at times.
“I was basically a camper here last year,” Rettke said just before the start of the Badger Bring It Camp this week. “Not even having gone a year, seeing how far I’ve come and grown as a player and a person is pretty crazy to me.”
Rettke introduced herself to the college volleyball world by earning first-team All-American and Freshman of the Year honors.
And she added to her resume by being part of the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team that toured China in May.
For Rettke it was one of those life-enriching experiences in which volleyball played only a secondary role. The team played just five matches, only two of which were open to the public, and had three practices scattered over 10 days. The U.S. team won four of the matches, but Rettke searched in vain to find any statistics or video from the contests.
“It wasn’t super volleyball intensive,” she said. “We literally had one practice an hour before our first match and it was kind of roll out the balls and go. It was meant to be fun and we got to do a lot of cool things.”
Among the highlights were an educational visit to the Nanjing Massacre museum, a stop at an elementary school in Nanjing for a kids volleyball clinic and a trip to the Great Wall, “which was probably my favorite experience from the whole trip.”
Along the way there were plenty of sightseeing and shopping opportunities in Shanghai, the ancient city of Xitang and Beijing. There also were some adventurous dining experiences mixed in as she sampled duck tongue and cow stomach, along with more customary Chinese cuisine.
Rettke chronicled each day with a blog on uwbadgers.com, which gained a wider audience when it was picked up by the USA Volleyball website.
“I thought it was really important to tell people about it because I don’t think a lot of people know much about China,” she said. “I thought it was cool that not just Wisconsin fans read it. Parents of the girls that were with me read it and so many other people.
“It was nice because I had a lot of time to kill on the buses and trains, so I’d just bust out my laptop and type it up and sent it out. I’m not the best writer ever, but I’m just glad I’ll have the memories now. It was nice to reflect on the things you’re doing.”
Through it all, perhaps the best part of the trip for Rettke was the bonding with her 11 temporary teammates, many of whom have been traveling in the elite volleyball circles for years. Her roommate was Marquette middle Jenna Rosenthal and she struck up friendships with Minnesota opposite Stephanie Samedy and Florida middle Rachael Kramer, who at 6-8 shares that status as the tallest player in college volleyball.
“People would make comments and we’d go, ‘Yeah, we know, but thanks.’ We had a fun time with it.
“I just absolutely love meeting new people and talking to people. So going to games now I’ll be friends with the girls we play against and I look forward to seeing them at the All-American banquet again.”
That mindset reflects a growth of confidence and a determination to continue to expand and polish her game.
“I think the past year has given me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have otherwise,” Rettke said. “Last year I really struggled with that. I just didn’t think I really belonged where everyone else did. I know everyone is coming for me. Everyone wants to stop me and I am so determined to not let that happen.”
Rettke quickly ticked off a list of things she is resolved to improve on, from her serving to her blocking to her repertoire of shots to her back court defense.
“I could go down the list forever of things I have to work on,” she said. “This is not the end of anything, I promise.”
Having watched her transition from volleyball neophyte to an All-American almost overnight, Sheffield takes that promise seriously.
“Usually most people’s dreams are so far beyond what they’re probably willing to work for and what their talent is,” he said. “Dana hadn’t even really dreamed big. So she’s dreaming now.
“Confidence is a powerful thing. It’s an amazing thing and she’s starting to get more and more confident. It’s fun. I’m sure it’s fun to be her and it’s fun to watch her.”