After his team won the first set, which was a shock in itself, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield walked over to his team.
They were happy but not giddy as Sheffield entered their circle.
“We want to be the best team on the planet living in the moment,” he said.
And so they were.
The Badgers, seeded 12th and a team most of the college volleyball world never expected to be here, dispatched No. 1 Texas, the defending national champion, in four sets Thursday night. Their stunning 25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23 victory in the NCAA Division I Championship semifinals confounded the Longhorns and defied big-time volleyball logic.
“We never expected that we were going to get this far,” admitted 6-foot-2 freshman Lauren Carlini, who is quickly establishing herself as one of if not the best setters in the country. “And the fact that we all just gathered together and we made a goal and we just fought back and I don't know…
“Everyone is just so proud of each other and we know we're one of the tightest teams out there. And we're just ballers. We go out and we play. Let the cards fall where they may.
“I don't think anyone is happier than us right now.”
Wisconsin (28-9) hit .131 because Texas had five solo blocks and 28 block assists. But the Longhorns hit just .156 themselves on a night in Key Arena when little and scrappy beat tall and powerful.
For Texas (27-3), it was not just the end to a 23-match win streak, but an end to being national champion.
“Tonight felt like it was the first match of the season. We just never got comfortable,” said UT coach Jerritt Elliott, who was making his fifth trip to the final four in six years. “When you make 23 hitting errors and have 46 kills, it's tough to win any match.”
Those errors came from some unlikely sources. The Big 12 Player of the Year, Haley Eckerman, led with 17 kills in 60 swings, but she had nine errors and hit .133. Khat Bell had only two errors but just seven kills. Bailey Webster had seven kills and three errors.
Wisconsin’s defensive players were tough as always. Libero Annemarie Hickey had 21 digs and defensive specialist Taylor Morey added nine in a match where the Badgers seemed to know where to be at all times.
Wisconsin was in a bracket in which No. 4 and unbeaten Missouri and No. 5 Florida were both upset so the prevailing logic was that the Badgers had an easier road here with victories over Milwaukee, Cal, Florida State (which upset Florida), and then Big Ten rival Purdue.
“You know, we believed that we could win this match,” Sheffield said. “And I think that's a big part of anytime you go into anything. This has been a team that no matter who we played, we believed, the players have believed that there's a way to win.”
Perhaps, but Wisconsin hasn’t even been in the NCAA Tournament since 2007 and made its only other final four appearance in 2000. That was under former coach Pete Waite, who was replaced after last season by Sheffield, who had great success at Dayton, dominating the Atlantic 10.
Sheffield took offense from the get-go that his new team was rebuilding. Rather, he set lofty goals despite that Wisconsin has just one big outside in 6’4” Ellen Chapman, who had 17 kills and seven errors in 53 swings to hit .153. But it’s not likely that a team has made it this far in a long time with hitters like 5’7” Deme Morales and 5’9” Dominique Thompson.
“We have people who hit like [UT’s 6’3”] Bailey,” Eckerman said. “And we're so used to trying to block someone so much taller. We're used to reaching and things like that. That kind of was a challenge for us. So a lot of practice the last couple of days we've been working on trying to stay low and over and being ready for those smaller hitters that were going to try to tool us.”
Morales, who botched a roll shot that didn’t clear the net to give Teas a 22-21 lead in the fourth, hardly backed down.
“The blocking scheme in our scouting report was block line and to take that away. Morales did a nice job hitting high hands on us,” Elliott said. “It's a challenge because she's a very talented lady. She struggles putting the ball to the floor. She's good because she knows how to hit high hands, use the block. And we got tooled a bunch.”
Morales finished with 14 kills but 13 errors in 41 swings. Thompson had 12 kills and six errors in 27 swings.
But no stat mattered at the end of the fourth set. After all, Morales is used to getting blocked.
“Yeah, I think before it used to really bother me when I was younger,” Morales admitted. “But going through all this and going up against huge blockers, it just it fires me up.
“It's like, OK, I just have to keep going at them. It just fires me up. It's more like a motivator.”
And it showed.
Morales had a kill to tie it, Courtney Thomas had a big block on UT’s Chiaka Ogbogu, and Texas called time and tied it on a kill by Molly McCage, but that was all the Longhorns had.
It ended with Morales tooling Amy Neal and then capping in the final rally with a blast off yet another block to send the Badgers into the final.
“In general, I think in that Kelly was saying we're the toughest team out there,” Chapman said. “We're just a bunch of ballers out there, and our back court is going to keep digging those hard hits that they keep putting at us. And just never giving up on those balls is what set us apart from them, I think.”
Ballers indeed. Ballers who have stunned the college volleyball world as they won their way into Saturday’s national-championship match.
Originally published in February 2014