<
>

Sydney Hilley has Wisconsin volleyball seeking final four with swagger and sets

Wisconsin setter Sydney Hilley ranks second in the country in assists per set and has the fifth-ranked Badgers seeking their first trip to the final four since 2013. Greg Anderson/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

Peek inside Sydney Hilley's closet and its organization hints how much the Wisconsin setter values precision.

"I put my clothes away very specifically," the Badgers junior says. "It's tank tops, then nice shorts, then short-sleeved shirts, then nice long-sleeved shorts, then my athletic short-sleeved shirts, then my athletic long-sleeved shirts ..."

"With Syd, everything matters," Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield says. "You should have seen when she got her first B."

Entering the final week of the regular season, fifth-ranked Wisconsin (21-5) is in position to win its first Big Ten title since 2014 behind a 17-1 conference mark. Wisconsin swept Nebraska on Sunday, and another victory clinches a share of the Big Ten title. If the Badgers snag both games on the road this week at Penn State and Rutgers, they win the championship outright.

Wisconsin is closing in on being one of four regional hosts, meaning the Badgers would not have to leave Madison in the NCAA tournament until the final four. And they would not be in this position without Hilley, who is ranked second nationally in assists per set.

"I call Syd our compass; she keeps us pointing north," Sheffield says. "She's more mature at age 21 than I am at 50."

To say she's meticulous would be understating it.

Hilley relies on multiple to-do lists beyond her detailed academic planner. Two Christmas gift idea lists, one for family and a second for team secret Santa, are works in progress. Household chores? "Nothing is ever a mess with Syd," says Dana Rettke, one of her teammates and roommates.

The team bus doesn't leave Madison for road trips until Hilley's teammate, Izzy Ashburn, reviews a packing checklist with her buddy from Champlin High, a 15-minute drive from Minneapolis.

Toothbrush?

Check.

Uniform?

Yep.

Tom Brady recovery sleepwear? ("Infrared tech helps your muscles recover faster," says Hilley, who wears specific PJs on the eve of games.)

Check.

"I call Syd our compass; she keeps us pointing north. She's more mature at age 21 than I am at 50." Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield on setter Sydney Hilley

Hilley regards herself as analytical as opposed to superstitious, a characteristic that plays out well on the volleyball court. She's a good bet to be conference setter of the year after being named setter of the week five times. Two weeks ago, her career-best 78 assists led the Badgers to an upset of Minnesota to reclaim the top spot in the always-rugged Big Ten.

Hilley's commitment to volleyball dates to fourth grade. Her mother played volleyball at North Dakota State and offered something of a bribe if Hilley could make her first club team.

"She said I could get this certain pair of shoes," Hilley says. "I got the shoes."

After committing to Wisconsin as a high school freshman, Hilley would regularly check in via phone with Sheffield. During one chat, he asked, "What's one thing you want somebody to say about you?"

"I'm humble," she responded.

"Interesting," he replied.

Humility is an admirable character trait, Sheffield said in agreement. Lauren Carlini -- Wisconsin's most decorated setter, who now starts for Team USA -- is also humble, he said. "But there's 30 other things she'd want somebody to say about her first."

Elite athletes, he continued, need to demonstrate unbreakable, unshakeable confidence. They can't be too humble to show that.

Two days later, Hilley called him back. She reflected on his question, remembering the day she wore her letter jacket full of patches to high school, only to be told how cocky that was.

But Hilley admired Carlini. She had swagger, as does Hilley's favorite athlete, Kevin Durant.

"Guys get to show off all their accomplishments and that's cool for them to do, but if girls do that, they're seen as arrogant," Hilley says. "Being confident in yourself correlates directly to how you play on the court."

Now she embraces words such as winner, perfectionist, determined, motivated and productive. Both on and off the court, she is cognizant of her posture. "Chin up, shoulders back, standing up straight," she says.

But she also finds confidence in how she communicates, and the volleyball staff was a big proponent in that.

Before the season, the Badgers each took a personality assessment to improve team communication. Hilley wasn't surprised by her profile that showed her tendency to prefer accuracy, numbers and the bottom line.

"That's exactly what Lauren Carlini was, too, which I found pretty cool," she says.

Hilley went a step further and memorized the results of all the Badgers and coaches so she could modify her communication style to best fit everyone. "In stressful moments on the court, being able to communicate and get the best out of your teammates is everything," she says.

She looks for challenges, though her major provides plenty. She holds a 3.79 GPA in genetics and genomics with plans to work in a lab. She has an affinity for escape rooms. Even a simple game of darts with her longtime boyfriend, Badgers quarterback Jack Coan, can turn testy.

"I've beaten him twice at darts, and now he won't play with me," she says.

She has a quarterback's dream of an offense, led by the All-American Rettke, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker. Molly Haggerty, Grace Loberg, Madison Duello and Danielle Hart all are enviable options. The Badgers have hit .300 or better in 14 matches this season, ranking them first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally with a .297 hitting percentage.

While she tries not to think too far ahead of the next game, Hilley has naturally considered what it would mean for Wisconsin to advance to its first final four since 2013.

"We're motivated by possibly winning the Big Ten, possibly going to the final four, possibly winning a national championship," she says. "But you've got to take it one at a time. That's the only way you're going to get there."