Our meeting last June was on a plane leaving Orlando after AAU nationals.
Kelly Sheffield was wearing his newly acquired Wisconsin gear. I reminded him I’d done a story on him and his team when he was at Dayton.
“When are you going to something on us at Wisconsin?” he asked.
“Do something good,” I cracked.
And so, in just his first year in Madison, he has.
His is one of seven Big Ten teams left in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 after ousting Milwaukee and Cal. And, well, it’s worth a story because the Wisconsin story is pretty good.
Especially when you consider just how many injuries the Badgers (25-9) have overcome this season. Players? Think fife and drum corps from the Revolutionary War. For that matter, things got so bad that during a pre-match practice at Minnesota two weeks ago Sheffield had to enlist the services of one of his managers. And wouldn’t you know it, but Quinn Lukens sustained a horrible broken leg.
Now 12th-seeded Wisconsin, 13th in the last AVCA poll and 15th in VBM’s, faces upstart Florida State at Illinois on Friday with one eye looking ahead to another Big Ten battle against the winner of Illinois-Purdue.
Wisconsin is trying to make it back to the final four since it made its only appearance, losing in five sets to Nebraska, in the 2000 NCAA championship match.
The Badgers are led by 6'4" junior outside Ellen Chapman, a story in herself, who has 451 kills (3.47 per set), is hitting .259, and has a team-best 29 aces. In the sweep of Cal, Chapman collected a match-high 14 kills.
“She will be the first one to tell you that she got about halfway through the season last year and she quit on her teammates and the staff and herself,” Sheffield said slowly. “And she wasn’t proud of that. And she said that will never happen again.”
Instead, he said, she’s been a hard worker and shown a confidence and passion others might not realize is there.
Junior Demi Morales, standing just 5'7", has 345 kills and junior middle Dominique Thompson has 327 kills and hits .317.
Freshman Haleigh Nelson has 232 kills, is hitting .332, and leads with 129 block assists and 15 solo. Her former high school and Raleigh, N.C., club teammate Madi Bugg, is the setter for Stanford, which is also in the round of 16. Nelson, of course, was long committed to Wisconsin before Sheffield came around.
“First few days of preseason I said this kid would never play here. It really shows you how overrated coaching is,” Sheffield said with a laugh. But an injury created an opportunity and “she’s getting better and better.”
Versatile junior Courtney Thomas, hampered for a while by an abdomen strain, has 288 kills. She had to set in the spring when there was no one else to do the job, but Sheffield knew she’d move to hitter in the fall.
Freshman setter Lauren Carlini has a wide array of stats, from 119 kills and 92 blocks, to a whopping 1,275 sets. For example, she had 40 assists, five kills, and three blocks against Cal.
“We’re playing at a whole new level,” she said. “I’m excited to see what we can do in the next round.”
Carlini missed most of the preseason and the first two weekends with a leg injury, which put Thomas back at setter.
Sophomore Taylor Morey (348 digs) and the team’s only senior Annemarie Hickey (397 digs) are the defensive players. Hickey, who also hits left side and missed three weeks with an ankle injury, has worked harder than ever, Sheffield said, since he took over.
“They bought into it all the way,” Sheffield said. “I never got the impression from anybody at any time that they weren’t all the way in.”
Norwegian senior right side Julie Mikaelsen is out for the season with a broken foot. Junior outside Crystal Graff has sat most of the season with a severe ankle injury. And junior DS Caroline Workman missed the year with both an ankle injury and illness.
All of that required multiple moves. Chapman, for example, has played all three front row positions.
No wonder the coaches said “there were times when it seemed we losing a player every practice.”
When Sheffield left a great gig at Dayton to replace Pete Waite at Wisconsin, the program was in a bad way. From 2009 to 2012, Wisconsin went 24-54 in Big Ten play, including 17-15 overall in 2012, 5-15 in the league. The last NCAA trip was in 2007 and the last time Wisconsin made it to the round of 16 was in 2006.
“I never came in here thinking I had to change things,” Sheffield said. But when he got there last spring “I didn’t think they handled things well when things went against them. We were practicing hard and we got into some spring matches and the other team would go on a three-point run and it was like the world was coming to an end. I remember numerous times looking at my staff and going, ‘What is this? What is this mentality?’ We wouldn’t see it in practice but we’d go against an opponent and it wouldn’t take much to make our knees buckle.
“When your backs are against the wall, that’s where the real fun in sports is. And you have to embrace those challenges.”
“If you can’t embrace when things get tough, you’re in the wrong league.”
Obviously the Badgers got over it and Sheffield thinks fighting through all the injuries helped. Lukens, by the way, spent a few days in a Minneapolis hospital but was back on the bench for the NCAA Tournament.
“Overcoming the injuries has really given us strength, team strength,” he offered. “People have been shuffled in and out of the lineup and even missed the season and we’ve continued to win. That can really strengthen a team.”