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Badgers volleyball 2019 recruiting class has deep ties to program

November 16, 2018
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Izzy Ashburn is following former high school teammate Sydney Hilley to the UW volleyball team.

Kelly Sheffield and his University of Wisconsin volleyball coaching staff have done all right for themselves in the recruiting world, having built the No. 7 Badgers into a perennial power.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll turn away a little outside help. Or some inside help, in a couple cases with the 2019 recruiting class.

Four players signed national letters of intent on Wednesday to join the UW program in 2019: Izzy Ashburn, a 6-foot-1 setter from Dayton, Minnesota; Courtney Gorum, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Chesapeake, Virginia; Liz Gregorski, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Appleton (Xavier); and Anna MacDonald, a 5-foot-8 libero from Alpharetta, Georgia.

“I’m excited about this class,” Sheffield said. “I would describe this group as mature, optimistic, and people who love challenges. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a player or two find their way into the rotation, somehow, early in their careers.”

Two of those recruits have strong ties to the UW program. MacDonald is the sister of former Badger libero and current manager Amber MacDonald, while Ashburn was a teammate of UW setter Sydney Hilley for two years at Champlin Park High School.

Those connections didn’t hurt during the recruiting process as the current team members didn’t hesitate to assert their influence.

“I wouldn’t have wanted her to go anywhere else,” Amber MacDonald said. “She was getting a lot of attention as a freshman, which is kind of unusual for a libero. As soon as she started getting letters from other schools I was like, ‘No, you’ve got to go to Wisconsin.’ When she was a freshman she had a visit planned to Minnesota and I was like, ‘No.’ She never made it to that visit.”

Likewise, Hilley figured it was time to step in when she heard her friend was considering a Big Ten Conference rival.

“She was looking at a couple other schools and then I think Nebraska started contacting her,” Hilley said of Ashburn, who remained uncommitted into her junior year. “I was like, ‘Hey, Kelly, you should come and check her out, she would fit in perfectly here.’ She came to camp, they loved her and now here she is.”

Hilley played outside hitter her last two high school seasons, with Ashburn at setter as Champlin Park finished third in the AAA state championships in 2015 and second in 2016, Hilley’s senior year.

This year, with Hilley’s sister Sami playing along with Ashburn, Champlin Park won the state championship, the first for the school in any sport.

While she’s admittedly biased, Hilley has no doubt that Ashburn will be an impact player for the Badgers.

“She’s super athletic and very coachable,” Hilley said. “When I first started playing with her when she was a freshman she was pretty raw. To see what she looked like as a freshman and now just winning a state championship and winning the MVP, it’s amazing how much better she’s gotten in that short amount of time.

“When she committed here it was so exciting because I was trying to get her to come here for a long time. I think it’s pretty unusual that you have two players from the same high school to come together that play the same position. I know everyone is going to love her and she’s going to fit right in.”

As much as Sheffield respects Hilley’s opinion, he wouldn’t have recruited Ashburn if he didn’t feel precisely the same way.

“Izzy is a really athletic setter with great hands,” Sheffield said. “She’s had good training in club and high school. Izzy’s been coming to our camps for a few years so we’ve really gotten to see her progression up close. By the end of last season, we thought she was turning into one of the top setters in her class.”

Ashburn has the hardware to support that notion. She was named the 2018 Ms. Baden Volleyball for Minnesota (an honor Hilley won in 2016), is a two-time first-team all-state selection and three-time all-tournament choice. She was named to the 2018 AVCA Under Armour first team and was PrepVolleyall.com’s No. 38 Senior Ace.

Anna MacDonald also accumulated her share of honors as she helped lead Blessed Trinity High School to two state championships and was named an AVCA first-team All-American and the 4A Georgia State Player of the Year. She set the Georgia state record for career digs with 3,297 and had 366 career service aces.

“Anna is a fierce competitor and a winner,” said Sheffield. “She won’t back down or flinch playing at this level. She takes it personally if an attacker scores in her area of the court. Being around the program and watching her sister go through it for the past four years, she knows what it’s about.”

Her big, if four-inches shorter, sister has watched her development as a player with pride, and only a hint of envy.

“I want her to have all the success in the world, obviously, but it’s a little heartbreaking when she’s breaking all of my high school records,” said Amber MacDonald, who had to give up the sport because of repeated injuries. “She’s an incredible player and she’s very passionate about this sport and this program. It’s going to be really cool to have her here and be able to come back and watch her play.

“From the time she committed here to now, she’s made like a whole 180 as a player. Her personality on the court and her abilities are unreal. She’s much better than I was when I was her age.”

Amber said that their shared career paths helped draw the sisters closer. But she admits it will be strange to see Anna playing her old position alongside her former teammates.

“It’s going to be weird,” she said. “The girls on the team are my best friends. Me and Anna are four years apart so we’ve never had that where my friends are her friends. It’s definitely going to be like that when she gets here, so it’s going to be interesting.”

While Anna will be following in Amber’s footsteps, she’ll also maintain her own identity, wearing No. 3 rather than Amber’s No. 7 jersey.

“No. 7 was available and she didn’t choose it,” Amber said. “I was heartbroken. She said I can’t follow you all the time.”

Gregorski, who missed the club season with an ACL injury, averaged 5.2 kills per set and hit .433 as a junior for Xavier and was conference player of the year as a sophomore. She helped lead her Fox Citiies Elite club to a fifth-place finish at the 2017 USA Volleyball Junior Nationals and earned all-tournament honors.

“Liz attended our camp a couple of years ago and was one of the most talked about players by the end of it,” Sheffield said. “She’s very springy and can play high although she’s not a very tall player at the net. I like the fact that she’s a tireless worker who wants to be really good. Liz has missed quite a bit of time over the past year due to injuries, but I know she’s driven to play at a high level.”

Gorum was the last member to join the 2019 class, committing in October after previously committing to play at Chattanooga. A late bloomer, she is ranked No. 50 on PrepVolleyball.com’s Senior Aces and was an AVCA All-American first-team pick.

She also has a UW connection, coming from the same club program as current Badger Danielle Hart, the Coastal Virginia Volleyball Club, where she is a teammate of Hart’s sister Erica.

“The first thing that jumps out at you about Courtney is her athleticism,” said Sheffield. “She attended our camp this summer and her ability to play above the net was certainly impressive. She’s a big jumper and has the potential to be a big-time blocker. Although very quiet off of the court, she can have a fiery personality on it. Courtney is fairly new to the sport but her potential is exciting.”

In addition to these four, Emma Whitehead, a 5-3 defensive specialist from Scottsdale, Arizona, is expected to join the class as a walk-on.

Dru Kuck, a defensive specialist from Sheboygan North, had committed to UW in 2015 but will no longer be joining the program.

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