After a long, frustrating ordeal, Molly Haggerty is starting to feel like her old self these days.
Only better than that.
“I definitely feel like the new and improved Molly,” said Haggerty, the redshirt junior outside hitter for the No. 9 University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
Those are encouraging words for everyone involved in the UW program who have yearned to see Haggerty’s career get back on track after being derailed by a back injury that required surgery following her dynamic freshman season in 2016.
That season set a lofty bar for Haggerty as she was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American. Haggerty redshirted in 2017 and then struggled to regain her form during much of last season.
But six matches into this season she sees a player who is much more accomplished and well rounded than the freshman version of herself.
“I always reference back to myself in my freshman year but I really realize how much volleyball IQ I’ve gained since then,” Haggerty said. “I think I have a lot more shots than I did my freshman year and I’m able to use that a lot. I’m not just a hitter but more of a smart player.”
While still a small sample size, the statistics support that notion. Heading into this week’s battle of the UWs — the Badgers (4-2) host No. 10 Washington (7-1) on Thursday and then head out to Seattle for a rematch on Saturday — Haggerty is averaging 3.43 kills and 0.62 blocks per set, with a .249 hitting percentage. Those numbers are slightly better than her freshman stats — 3.41 kps, 0.44 bps, hitting .239.
Coach Kelly Sheffield notes Haggerty’s hitting percentage has improved roughly 100 points each weekend this season and maintains she is superior in all phases of the game at this point in her career.
“She’s a much more versatile hitter than she was her freshman year,” Sheffield said. “Her freshman year it was pretty much, hit hard and if that doesn’t work, let’s hit it harder. Now she will change up speeds and chip off the block a little bit, as well, so I think that part of her game has evolved quite a bit from when she first came in here.
“I see a player that continues to get stronger. She’s an awfully important player for us.”
One of the most important roles for Haggerty would be to become that terminal outside hitter she once seemed destined to be. While she doesn’t want to be a one-dimensional player, that remains a role she relishes.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else to be it,” she said. “I want to be that person for this team. I want to be known as the outside hitter who led Wisconsin to its first national championship.
“But I don’t want to be known as just a hitter. In high school, it’s not that I only cared about hitting, but that’s what you score points on and I loved being the point scorer. But I’ve learned that there’s more than just being the hitter who gets all the kills. There’s being the defender, the passer, the server, the out-of-system setter. All those things really play a big role in the team’s success and I want to fill those roles in any way I can.”
Haggerty said her back hasn’t given her any problems this year and she doesn’t feel limited in any way after proceeding cautiously much of last season.
Equally important, she has regained what Sheffield calls her swagger, that sense of invincibility forged through a celebrated prep and club career that saw her lead her St. Francis High School team to four Illinois state championships and her Sports Performance club team to four AAU national titles.
“I think she’s stronger mentally right now than she is physically, but that was a process,” Sheffield said. “When you love the sport as much as she loves it, and you’re not playing at the level you want to and you think you can, that can be a challenge. She had to battle through that.”
Haggerty agreed the mental aspect of the comeback process has been more difficult than the physical.
“Hands down, mentally,” she said. “I doubted myself a lot and I think that’s what the hardest part was. I would say I’m a pretty confident person, so for me to doubt myself about something I love to do was really hard for me and I didn’t know how to handle it. I think everybody doubts themselves at some point, but it’s whether or not you can get past that. I think I’ve learned how to manage it and become mentally tougher from my journey.”
It’s been a journey Haggerty has reflected on with her parents and her sister Maddie, who likewise had an injury-plagued career. It also made a message passed along by Sheffield last week about benefiting from adversity hit home.
The quote from a TED talk said: “If you learn to use (adversity) right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.”
Amen, said Haggerty.
“Obviously, nobody wants to get injured because you’re taken away from something you love to do,” she said. “But looking back now, I don’t think I would’ve learned the lessons about myself and I think it’s really made me realize how tough I am as a person, mentally and physically, that I can push myself to do anything.
“A lot of people told me I wouldn’t be able to come back from this injury and I think that not only motivated me to come back but to come back stronger for myself. I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere close to where I want to be, but I’m definitely getting closer every day.”