Backup setter Mallory Dixon unsung leader for Badgers
Mallory Dixon didn’t really think anything of it when she received a group text for a University of Wisconsin volleyball team meeting during one of the July camp sessions.
Perhaps the fact that her big sister Molly, also a camp coach, was invited to the meeting in the locker room at the UW Field House was a tipoff this wasn’t an ordinary team meeting.
Rather than receiving some routine organizational details, as Dixon anticipated, coach Kelly Sheffield gathered everyone in a circle and started telling them about Steve Lowe, the former UW coach who died of cancer in 1991 at age 35.
And then he announced that Dixon, a walk-on, would be receiving the Steve Lowe Memorial Scholarship for the 2018-19 school year.
The spontaneous group hug was captured on video has been viewed 18,000 times on Facebook.
“The reaction of our team was really cool,” said Dixon, who estimates that she’s watched the video “a lot.”
When a scholarship became available for this year, the 5-foot-9 junior setter from Manitowoc was a natural choice for Sheffield. Dixon had passed up a scholarship to Bowling Green in order to fulfill a lifelong dream to become a Badger. She made that choice knowing full well that she would almost certainly spend her career as a backup, first to Lauren Carlini and then to Sydney Hilley.
“If she had gone (to Bowling Green) she probably would’ve played right away,” Sheffield said. “She gave up a lot to be a servant leader. You look at how she approaches every day in practice and how much she means to the success of our program, she’s earned that scholarship.”
The role of a backup setter can be a thankless one, at least from a playing time standpoint. In her first two years Dixon has appeared in just 11 matches, primarily as a serving substitute.
That’s why Saturday’s Red vs. White scrimmage is particularly significant for Dixon, who will lead one team while Hilley leads the other.
“It’s fun to get out there and play with the girls that I’m practicing with every day and be able to showcase what we have going,” Dixon said.
Dixon’s primary role, however, is as the leader of the second team in practice, challenging the starters by maintaining an efficient attack. It is a role that Sheffield had struggled to fill in his early years at UW, due in large part to injuries that plagued Hannah and Erin Juley and Jordan Robbins.
But it is a role Dixon has grown into over the years and has helped stabilize.
“One of the things I like about Mal is she’s as competitive as all get-out,” Sheffield said. “But she’s embraced her role of getting the other side of the net, no matter who’s over there, competing and fighting as hard as they can. She’s the leader over there.
“She wasn’t early on in her career. She was very concerned about the errors she was making and would get very frustrated with that. But I see a player that has grown and matured and gotten out of that. She’s come a long way.”
That’s only as would be expected from the daughter of two coaches. She played for her mom, Mary Beth, in high school, while her late father, John, was the football coach. John Dixon, who was a walk-on with the UW football team and earned a letter in 1980, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer in 2014.
But his influence endures.
“I know he would be so happy with me doing the things that I’m doing,” Dixon said. “I think of him a ton and I just know he would be so proud.”