Steady senior Tionna Williams excels under the radar for No. 9 Wisconsin
It isn’t easy for someone to be both highly acclaimed, and at the same time, relatively inconspicuous.
Difficult, but not impossible, as Tionna Williams has demonstrated.
In three seasons with the University of Wisconsin volleyball team, Williams has earned All-American status each season and All-Big Ten Conference honors the past two seasons while establishing herself as one of the quickest and most consistently productive middle blockers in the nation.
Yet she’s never been recognized as the best middle on her own team, having been overshadowed by Haleigh Nelson her first two years and by freshman sensation Dana Rettke last season.
And when the ninth-ranked Badgers open the season Friday against North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Williams plans to quietly go about her business and will not be offended if fans are more focused on any number of her teammates.
“It’s fine by me,” Williams said of her under-the-radar status. “I kind of notice that but it doesn’t really affect me. I’ve always been that type of person, I handle my business, do what I have to do and at the end of the day, we’re done. I’m a little more reserved off the court. I guess it fits.”
Although the spotlight may be elsewhere most of the time, she brings a consistent, reliable presence to the court that coach Kelly Sheffield values highly.
“She’s been about as consistent as you can be, match in and match out, year in and year out,” Sheffield said. “Consistent can be boring to some people. It’s not boring to me. I think that’s one of the best compliments you can give somebody.
“In the matches and against really good teams in big moments, she doesn’t blink. I think that’s a big quality. When you’re staring at those big moments, are you ready for them? She certainly is.”
Williams has had to overcome a persistent stress fracture in her left leg since her junior year of high school. But her training routine has been adjusted over the years and she said she’s feeling “springy” heading into her final season at UW.
One change in her training this year has been working on the right side in addition to the middle as Sheffield explores all options for his unusually deep front row.
“It’s definitely a challenge just because I haven’t been on the right side before,” Williams said. “But with this team we have so many different weapons, so many different players who can play in different spots.”
Williams, the only senior remaining from an original class of six freshmen, is on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in human development and family studies with a certificate in Afro-American studies. She hopes to play overseas and eventually work with young people in some capacity.
That desire was fueled this summer during an internship with Madison School & Community Recreation, working at the Meadowood Neighborhood Center on the West Side.
“My center focuses on at-risk youth and teens and minority and low-income family,” Williams said. “We really cater to that demographic in that area because that is a rougher area in Madison. It was a really big eye opener.
“I love it, I love my kids. I go back and visit every now and then and they just swarm me with huge hugs. Just being able to have such a huge impact, even if just for a summer, on those kids’ lives means the world to me. That’s my drive.”
Another of Williams’ passions is art. She would draw a lot when she was young and began taking art classes during high school, developing a particular fondness for painting, mostly with acrylics.
“Painting is one of my top priorities,” Williams said. “I think art is just a little bit of a release. We have such a high demand life being a student-athlete, especially at this level. So just being able to calm down at the end of the day if I have a little free time and just paint like there’s nobody telling me what I need to do. It’s just free flowing and relaxing.”
Among her favorite pieces is a three-dimensional glass painting she did last spring. “That was the first time I’d ever tried that and it turned out really great,” she said. “I’m starting to dabble in some different things.”
One of those things is on display every day in the practice gym, as the Badgers are wearing practice shirts designed by Williams.
“Kelly kind of sprung that on me,” she said. “It’s fun, wearing my product.”