Wisconsin’s Danielle Hart — artist, traveler, big-time middle — a tremendous comeback story

Editor’s note: In Wisconsin’s last four matches, Danielle Hart has 36 kills with no errors in 51 attacks, an incredible stretch for the No. 3. Badgers. For the season, she is hitting a Big Ten-leading .443 and is third in the NCAA at 1.57 blocks per set. We are excited to have this feature about her from Dennis Punzel, who covers Wisconsin volleyball for the Wisconsin State Journal and is the author of “Point Wisconsin,” which chronicles the Badgers’ 2021 NCAA-championship season:

By Dennis Punzel for VolleyballMag.com

Danielle Hart, the artist, traveler and big-time middle blocker, is living one of those classic silver lining tales.

Flash back to the start of the 2021 season, one in which Wisconsin would go on to win the NCAA championship. Hart, a 6-foot-4 product of Virginia Beach, Virginia, couldn’t have had a better start to the season. She had 19 kills in the first six matches, was hitting .427, and had 20 blocks.

But in practice on September 14, she tore her right ACL and was lost for the season. She could only cheer from the sidelines as her teammates won it all.

Now comes the silver lining part.

Hart has ascended to a leadership role in the absence of her more acclaimed former classmates as she attempts to pick up her career where it left off last fall.

No longer overshadowed by All-Americans like Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes, she is a mentor for the next generation of Badgers as they seek to build on last season’s accomplishments.

Wisconsin’s Danielle Hart/Tom Lynn, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

“She’s out of the shadows,” coach Kelly Sheffield said. “Everybody here in this program knows how important of a player she’s been, but I think some others are going to be able to see how important she is.”

Hart has emerged as a dynamic force for the Badgers, who are in the midst of a 16-match winning streak that has left them in sole possession of first-place in the Big Ten with two matches left. They’re tough ones, for sure, at No. 5 Nebraska on Friday and at No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday.

When Sheffield looks at Hart now he sees a player who not only has picked up where she left off.

“If you just disappeared and went on vacation for a year and came back you wouldn’t know that she had major knee surgery,” Sheffield said. “She’s worked very hard. I think that was really important for her, not to just play but to be able to do everything that she’s able to do and to be better.

“There’s a lot of elements that I think it’s obvious that she’s a better player than what she was prior to that. That’s a real tribute to the work she and her rehab people and her trainers and strength coaches have done. It’s a great team effort to get her back to this point.”

The plan this season was to bring Hart along slowly, gradually increasing her playing time. That  lasted through the first week of matches as she played one set each against TCU and Baylor. Since then she’s been a full-time staple in the lineup, although her practice workload is monitored closely and her jumps are limited. Hart has 154 kills and averages 1.83/set on a team that boasts some tremendous offensive weapons in Sarah Franklin (327 kills), Julia Orzol (249) and Devyn Robinson (230).

In Wisconsin’s five-set win at Penn State this past Saturday, Hart had 13 kills with no errors in 20 attacks, her fourth match in a row without an error. She also had eight blocks and two digs.

“There’s still some managing things and it still doesn’t feel quite 100 percent and there are still some practices that I’m not participating in very much,” Hart said. “The bummer is that I love getting out there and playing with these guys and getting the swings off the setters.

Danielle Hart celebrates a Wisconsin point with Wisconsin teammate Anna Smrek/UW Athletics

“You want every bit of it but at the same time I can’t put words to how grateful I am to have the health I have at this point. That goes to so many people. The rehab room for a lot of people when they get injured becomes a space they don’t want to be in and they begin to avoid. They think of the training room as a bad place.

“For me, it became an oasis. They’re some of my biggest supporters and people I became incredibly close with. So when I find myself frustrated with how I’m playing or things going on around me, it doesn’t take very much to re-center and know what matters and be grateful for the opportunities I have to still be here and be with these guys.”

She’s also still adjusting to the fact that “these guys” are different from the cast of players she practiced and played alongside through most of her time at Wisconsin. Those have all moved on to the next phase of their lives, in or out of volleyball, while Hart has ascended to a leadership role.

“A lot of her friends have left but one of the things I’ve been really impressed with is how she has taken these guys, especially the younger ones, and has them over for meals, drives them places,” Sheffield said. “She is such a mentor. She’s impacting not just this year but the future with how she’s going about things, serving others. Her spirit will be here long after she leaves.”

Becoming a leader for Wisconsin

It is a role that Hart never really imagined for herself. A late bloomer in high school, she was the last of the scholarship players to commit for the celebrated 2017 recruiting class. She redshirted her freshman season and played sparingly the next. But then she emerged as a solid contributor the next two seasons, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors both times and honorable-mention All-American from VolleyballMag.com in 2019.

Hart finds the new leadership role fits her better than she might have imagined.

She remembers a bittersweet feeling last year as she joined her fellow seniors for the traditional jump in Lake Mendota on team picture day, realizing that her time at UW was winding down.

“You’re thinking this has been such a super experience, this season is going to be awesome and I’m so excited,” Hart said. “And I know that at the end of it my time is done and this chapter is closed.”

Then came the torn ACL, which ended her season but ultimately extended her career. And opened up new opportunities.

“At the time I was thinking that I had gotten what I was looking for out of the program,” Hart said. “I never had thought about the fact that without a lot of the people I came in with in that class, such incredible people and incredible leaders, that there was a lot more stretching that could be done.

“So that’s what’s cool about this injury. I am really getting stretched and I’m finding myself grow even more. I’m surprising myself at how comfortable I feel and how natural these roles feel now that I simply didn’t have in years past.”

Shanel Bramschreiber had played against Hart three times but didn’t know much about her before transferring to Wisconsin from Baylor this past summer. Hart immediately stepped up to help her adjust to her new surroundings.

“She was always an open house to me, a family away from home for me,” said Bramschreiber. “She and her roommates have just been awesome, making me dinner. Before I had my apartment I’d stay over there and watch movies and have porch nights. It was always a great time. She’s been an awesome role model and has made my home away from home because I didn’t know anyone here. She’s a great host for all of her guests. That’s the place you want to be after a game.”

Hart has lived in suburban Fitchburg, about a 15-minute drive from campus, the past couple years and with campus housing unavailable on short notice for Bramschreiber, Hart helped her find a place just down the road from where she lives. Part of their bond is that they’re at similar points in their careers as grad students — Bramschreiber earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in four years at Baylor.

“We’re on the same page because I’m not like a new incoming freshman,” Bramschreiber said. “We’re both older, we both know how things work a little bit and are interested in doing different things than you are in your freshman year. You’re kind of over it. So we’ve both gotten along that way.”

In recognition of her leadership skills, Hart was voted a team captain this year along with setters Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill.

It’s a task she embraces with her own unique sensibilities. As devoted as she is to her sport, Hart has always maintained a healthy assortment of outside interests from her Hart Art business selling her distinctive ocean epoxy resin pieces, to her photographic and video productions to her exhaustive travel ventures in her tricked out Jeep.

“Dan operates on a slightly different bandwidth than other people,” strength and conditioning coach Kevin Schultz. “But it works really well for her.”

A volleyball player/businesswoman 

As a newcomer, Bramschreiber is still getting acquainted with the variety of Hart’s interests.

“Her life is from border to border in this country,” she said. “She lives in her Jeep in the summer and she’s helped me explore. She has a kayak that we took out on the lake so we could see the Capitol from the lake. We were just chilling in the sun.

“She is just awesome. She has so many different aspects to her. People know Danielle Hart, volleyball player. But off the court she’s even better of a person and has amazing talents. Her Hart Art is really cool.”

Hart Art is a business she started several years ago, marketing her own artistic creations.

Hart got her first glimpse of ocean epoxy resin art several years ago while visiting Kauai, Hawaii, with friends and family members. She was hooked.

“All of my life when I see things that are cool I want to figure out how to make them,” said Hart. “This isn’t the first time that’s happened. For as long as I can remember, that’s been my personality.

“Like, that’s really cool, I want to go learn how to make that myself. It’s always been a creative side for me and people are getting to see some of that now, so that’s cool.”

When she got home Hart went to the Skillshare website and paid for classes to teach her how to make ocean epoxy art.

“From there,” she said, “through a lot of trial and error I’ve figured out my techniques and what works and what doesn’t.”

Hart’s process, in short, is to mix the clear epoxy resin with different pigments to create the desired colors and apply that to whatever surface she is working with. Then she uses a heat gun to make the waves, with blasts of heat reaching as high as 1,000 degrees.

“Different heat guns create different effects,” she said. “Then I let it sit for a few minutes and let some bubbles rise and then torch it over to get all the bubbles off. It’s so cool.

“It’s a medium that when you look at it, it’s the same whether it’s wet or dry. It’s really fun. What I love about the medium is that in a lot of ways it behaves like water. To a certain extent I can control some things but for the most part I can’t and it moves in that same way and comes out unique every time. That’s really fun to see how a piece comes out.”

The result is a glossy sheen that looks like ocean waves flowing across items that range from charcuterie boards and serving trays to cell phone covers and jewelry dishes.

The ocean theme is appropriate for Hart, who grew up on the water in Virginia Beach.

“I’ve always had a love for the ocean,” she said. “My parents also are very design oriented and very contemporary in style. This artwork is a very contemporary, modern looking artwork. A lot of my pieces have been inspired by aerial ocean photography from down by my own house.”

Hart started out making gifts for friends and family. But after receiving enthusiastic responses to those she began to think there just might be a larger potential market for her products.

Thus was born Hart Art.

Hart figured she had a good head start when it came to forming her own business, having watched her dad, Jim, operate his business, Definitive Concepts, which provides home automation, lighting design and home entertainment.

“I’ve watched my dad run his business my entire life and I thought I knew a lot about it, and I did,” Hart said. “But it’s a whole other thing to actually own one yourself and you start to understand all the little  things that go into it. I’ve probably learned more from that than from my time here in college.”

Hart basically runs her business on her laptop, using Google Sheets and Docs, along with templates for invoices. The rest, she’s made her own.

“I created my own website, which is really cool because web design has always been something I’ve been interested in,” Hart said. “Every aspect of the business has been really cool for me because not only do I love making the art itself, but the graphic design, my logo, my branding and my web development and web design, down to packaging things for people, all of that is really fun for me.”

With all that, she somehow finds time for her other passion – travel.

When she’s not working on volleyball or her art or studies, chances are Hart will be on the road to someplace. Sometimes it’s just a day trip around the state or maybe some overnight camping and other times she’s off on long-distance ventures.

To make those trips more convenient, Hart and her dad combined to customize her white Jeep.

“I drew it up and together we cut and built the whole thing and painted it,” Hart said. “It’s super custom and it’s just awesome.”

They built a box that fits in the back end, with a drawer for the cooler, one for her camera gear and another for cooking utensils, with space for a Coleman stove underneath. There’s also a fold-out table top and a board that can turn into a bed with the back seats folded down.

While she has a natural fondness for exploring her home state of Virginia, many of her ventures the past couple years have been to the national parks and landmarks of the West.

On one such trip in the summer of 2021 she started out on her own and met up with friends along the way. The itinerary: the Badlands in South Dakota, the Great Tetons in Wyoming, the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, then to California with stops at Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, San Luis Obispo (to meet up with former teammate Mariah Whalen), then picked up another former teammate Mallory Dixon and headed to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, Saguaro National Park in Arizona, White Sands National Park in New Mexico and Big Bend National Park in Texas.

“First off, I think traveling is a whole lot of fun,” Hart said. “But it also gives you such a different perspective on life, on volleyball, all of the above. Your perspective changes the more you travel and I appreciate the inspiration it gives me and the spark it gives just to think about things and what you value. Plus the memories you make on the road with these people.”

Count Sheffield among the envious.

“She is as fascinating a young person as I’ve ever been around,” Sheffield said. “She just loves seeing cool places. She doesn’t sit still very well.

“There’s many days I sit there and say ‘I want to be her. I want to live her life.’ ”

The task at hand while preparing for the next step

While Hart’s college career is winding down – she’s not going to pursue a possible seventh season of eligibility from the free COVID year – she’s planning to continue to play volleyball as long as she can.

She’s looking to pursue a professional career overseas, either early in 2023 or that fall, depending on how her knee is holding up. She’s also keeping open the door to any opportunity to work with the U.S. National Team.

“I’m really focused on this season and what I have at hand right now,” she said. “While the end is very quickly approaching, which is starting to weird me out a little bit, I have no idea which direction I’m going to go.

“A lot of it will depend on how my knee is feeling. It’s still not 100 percent and I’m still missing a lot of muscle. I want to get to a point where I’m not managing it and I can just ball and have a body that just hurts like a normal body and not an ACL body. I want to have a healthy body for the rest of my life and I want to do all the things I want to do, but I also want to chase these dreams I’ve had for many, many years.

“I’ll absolutely go play professionally as long as no other injuries come about. If I stay in the States I have plenty of business stuff and hobby stuff I can pursue while I continue to train and get healthy. There’s really not a bad option.

“I still feel like I’m scratching the surface of my potential. Which is crazy considering this is my sixth year. But when I came in I was so raw and every year I was so much better than I was the year before. I had so much distance to travel to get to where I’m at. I’ll never be satisfied.”

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Wisconsin’s Danielle Hart hits against Penn State earlier this season/Tom Lynn, Wisconsin Athletic Communications

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