Grace Loberg has a gift.
Like a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball, Loberg possesses a golden arm. Only she uses hers to propel volleyballs with a force that few can match, frustrating opposing blockers and punishing wary defenders along the way.
“I think I was just born with something lucky,” said Loberg, a sophomore outside hitter for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team. “I just think I was born with a heavy arm. I don’t know why, but I was just born with it.”
Loberg gave a sellout crowd at the UW Field House an eyeful of that arm on Saturday night when she put away 19 kills to lead the No. 2 Badgers to a victory over then-No. 2 Texas, a performance that would earn her Big Ten Conference Player of the Week honors despite sitting out the next night with a minor leg issue.
Those fans also got to see that the 6-foot-3 Loberg has blossomed as an all-around six rotation player who came up with a career-high 18 digs against the Longhorns.
And while it is her abilities as a terminating hitter that will always draw the most attention, it is her growing versatility that figures to elevate her, along with teammate Molly Haggerty, above the crowd of outside hitters.
“Left sides that have an arm, you’ll find a way to get on the court,” coach Kelly Sheffield said. “If you’ve got a big arm and you can score, that’s what you want out of the left side.
“But the great ones are six rotation players that can play the game. Fortunately, both of our starting lefts right now play all the way around and they impact the game in a lot of different ways.”
A six rotation player at Geneva (Ill.) High School and with her Fusion club program, Loberg was strictly a front row player in the limited playing time she received as a freshman. But she was always determined to become more than a one-dimensional performer.
“I think it’s very important to play all around,” she said. “It’s a hard task but I think it helps with the flow of the game, not having to come in and out, so I do enjoy that. It’s a lot of practice. It’s a lot of reps.”
Loberg’s action was limited primarily to practices last season. Her dedication to learning and improving impressed both Sheffield and her teammates.
“Grace is a worker,” Sheffield said. “She didn’t play early last year because she wasn’t ready to play the game at that speed. But she did what you want out of players, which is to come in the gym and just get better every single day.”
Haggerty, who was sidelined last year by a back injury, was able to spend a lot of quality time with Loberg, working alongside her in practice and watching matches from the bench.
“I think last year was great for her,” Haggerty said. “I know she obviously wanted to play but it was a good learning year. Being on the bench with her we got to talk a lot about what we were seeing. In practices she was like a sponge, absorbing everything.”
Loberg got a chance to show what she’d learned late last season when she stepped into the lineup during the NCAA tournament and immediately became a force. In three matches she averaged 4.4 kills per set and hit .371, peaking with a 20-kill performance in the Sweet 16 loss to Stanford.
She’s picked right up where she left off this season, averaging 3.73 kills per set and hitting .245, a figure dragged down by an uncharacteristic 10 hitting errors against Florida State.
One of her offensive priorities this year has been to expand her repertoire of shots.
“I’ve been really working on coming up with new shots, like going high hands,” Loberg said. “In high school and club my one thing was to always hit the ball down past the block. But I’m realizing that the blocks are a lot bigger now and you can’t just hit through them all the time, so I’m having to throw in some roll shots and tips and a bunch of different shots we’ve been working on.”
She’s also been effective in the back row, as she ranks second to libero Tiffany Clark in digs per set (3.55) and has made just one error in serve receive out of 59 attempts.
“I think she’s our best passer right now and she’s just really confident back there,” Haggerty said. “It’s fun having another six rotation buddy out there with me.”