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State of Grace

When the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in her senior season, volleyball star Grace Loberg ’21, MSx’22 wasn’t quite ready to hang up her Badger sneakers. She came back for one more year and helped win a national championship.

Grace Loberg plays volleyball.

Wisconsin outside hitter Grace Loberg (21) spikes the ball as the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team plays the UW-Green Bay Phoenix during the first-round of NCAA Division 1 championship play at the Field House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 29, 2018. The Badgers won, sweeping Green Bay, 3-0, and advance to face Pepperdine University in the second round of NCAA regionals at the UW-Madison Field House Nov. 30. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Grace Loberg ’21, MSx’22 knows the value of sticking around.

The outside hitter helped the Badger volleyball team capture the program’s first national championship in 2021, after the squad reached the NCAA tournament’s final four in 2019 and again in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. In the 2021 finals, the team rallied after losing the first game to Nebraska to win in thrilling fashion, three games to two. Because she stayed on for a bonus season, Loberg helped the Badgers take that title.

A daughter of a college volleyball player — her mother, Colleen, was on the squad at Indiana — Loberg was raised to dream in the rhythm of bump-set-spike. After growing up in Geneva, Illinois, she looked at the UW for the strength of Coach Kelly Sheffield’s teams but fell in love with the campus.

“People talk about finding the school and just knowing right away, and that was Wisconsin for me,” she says. “I knew I loved it. Still visited a bunch of other schools, and then ended up just knowing all along that it was Wisconsin.”

Through her first seasons, the team saw success, finishing in sixth place in the Big Ten in 2017, then third in 2018, and first in 2019. But optimism for 2020 fell flat when COVID-19 arrived. 

The regular season was shortened to just 13 matches, and though the Badgers finished undefeated, they ended up losing to Texas in the national semifinals. The team had to scramble to maintain contact with each other, leaning on Zoom. When they were together, they had to maintain physical distance.

“The protocol throughout McClain [the athletics training facility] was crazy,” she says. “We had to walk in a single file line; there was tape in the middle of the hallway. And getting tested three times a day. We were working out in smaller numbers. We weren’t really ever seeing each other all together.”

Rather than leave after earning her bachelor’s degree, Loberg decided to take the additional year of eligibility that the NCAA offered and come back for one last shot. The effort paid off with victory in December 2021.

Loberg had initially hoped to study to enter the health care field as a child-life specialist, a pediatric professional who helps hospitalized children and their families. But the pandemic prevented her from taking the courses she needed.

“My plan was to go to grad school for that and hopefully do a year of beach volleyball,” she says. “That all changed. I ended up joining the [School of Education’s educational policy and leadership analysis] program and did that for just the one year.”

Loberg is still considering a return to school to train as a child life specialist, but she’s currently chasing a chance to play beach volleyball professionally. The Big Ten Network has hired her as a color analyst for volleyball broadcasts. And she returns to Madison as often as possible — Homecoming will offer another chance to meet up with the women who shared her path through the pandemic to a championship.

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