If there’s one thing Badger players and coaches will tell you, it’s that they are focused on the present.
“Last year was last year,” said head coach Kelly Sheffield. “This is a new year.”
That’s a remarkable mindset to maintain considering Wisconsin’s incredible 2013 season, Sheffield’s first with the team after five years at the University of Dayton. Many in the volleyball world were taken by surprise as Wisconsin morphed from an unranked team into a formidable group of athletes that almost won it all in last year’s NCAA championship. But the success didn’t surprise those on the inside.
Though the volleyball team had mixed success in recent years, not having made it to the NCAA tournament since 2007, the University of Wisconsin has always had a strong athletic program. Last year two other UW teams, men’s basketball and women’s hockey, made it to the final four in their respective NCAA tournaments, and in recent years the football team has played in the Rose Bowl several times. This proud athletic tradition is supported by the university, the community in Madison, and zealous fans—support that Sheffield and his assistants knew they could count on.
Just as important, they knew the volleyball program was full of very talented young women with plenty of potential. When he came to Wisconsin, Sheffield saw it as his job to utilize that potential.
“I knew we had talent,” he said. It was just a matter of channeling those abilities.
To do so, Sheffield stressed working hard and working smart. The team also honed its competitive edge.
“Coach Sheffield has a strong winner mentality,” said redshirt senior Julie Mikaelsen. “Everything we do in practice is a competition and that helps us be in the mindset of competing. Coach Sheffield brought a new energy to the program.”
The Wisconsin coaching staff and team are also very conscious that volleyball skills aren’t the only ingredient necessary for success. A shared vision and mutual trust were also vital in order to turn the program’s slump into old news. “We all had to get on the same page,” Sheffield emphasized.
When it came to setting goals for the season, Sheffield struck a balance between thinking big and staying in the moment. Assistant coach Brittany Dildine nicely summarized the zen-like approach. “We don’t put a cap on expectations. But we focus on being the greatest team in the moment. That focus on the present has really helped this team operate at its best.”
Deme Morales, a senior outside hitter and defensive specialist, appreciated how the coaches kept players motivated.
“We went into the year with conservative expectations. We knew it would be challenging. Coach Sheffield did an amazing job of reminding us of our goals and keeping us motivated.”
Sheffield knew that the highest level of trust would be key to forging a strong sense of team unity. The players had to believe in the coaches and one another.
To build that sense of confidence, it was essential for everyone to get to know each other, a task Sheffield freely admitted he couldn’t accomplish instantly.
“I asked them to be patient with me,” he said. “It was going to take time to get to know them as players.”
According to sophomore setter Lauren Carlini, Sheffield exceled at familiarizing himself with all the individuals on the team. “He’s very player oriented,” said Carlini. “He knows what each player needs. He gets to know us on a personal level and he’s available to talk about anything.”
Redshirt senior middle blocker Dominique Thompson agreed and mentioned that it wasn’t just the player-coach relationship that deepened last season. “We all got to know each other better, on and off the court.”
Honing the talent, getting everyone on the same page, and prioritizing trust allowed Wisconsin to really start rolling during last year’s preseason. Assistant coach Dildine enjoyed seeing the players develop during practices. She said it was thrilling to watch when things suddenly clicked for them and each was able to become a better athlete. It was just as exciting to watch the team in competition.
“The team’s toughness was exposed early on,” said Dildine, referring to the Badgers’ important preseason win over Northern Iowa. The team was down 0-2 heading into the third game but they didn’t give up. “They really showed their determined character.”
While it is an accomplishment for any team to come from behind and win, the victory over Northern Iowa was especially important for Wisconsin. It marked the first time in almost 10 years that the Badgers had won a match after dropping the first two games. That preseason success was just a hint of what was to come.
After an impressive 23-9 regular-season performance, the Badgers soon found themselves getting deeper and deeper into the NCAA post-season tournament. “We fought our way through the 64 not thinking ahead too much,” said Carlini. That mindset helped them stay calm and collected all the way up to the national semifinal when they defeated No. 1 Texas.
Though Wisconsin had the talent and mental toughness to come out on top, the team ultimately lost to Penn State in the national championship. As could be expected, it was a tough defeat.
“We were so close—mere points away from taking them to five games,” said Carlini.
Other players echoed Carlini’s sense of frustration when explaining how they plan to channel the loss and push even harder in the 2014 season.
“I’m still not over it,” said Thompson. “But the loss is motivating.”
Morales agreed. “It was devastating. But it made us take a step back and acknowledge what we accomplished. Now we want it more than ever.”
With last year’s experience under its belt and with the return of several players who had to sit out last season due to injuries, Wisconsin just might get another crack at making it to the final. Of course, there will be challenges along the way.
Carlini mentioned several aspects the team is currently working on. “We want even better team chemistry,” she said. “We are also trying to add speed to our offense.”
While Thompson continues to work on her blocking, Morales is looking to enhance her game on the net and in the back row. “I’m trying to read the game better,” she said. “I want to get better shots, and when I’m on defense I want to do an excellent job of reading the hitters.”
For Sheffield, this year will be different in that he’ll have multiple options for each position on the floor. “Last year we didn’t have a lot of depth, so everyone just had to suck it up and play. Now that we have depth, it’s a challenge for me to figure out how the players will fit together. I’m still learning all the players’ talents. But it’s a challenge we are all looking forward to.”
Some of this new depth comes from recruits and transfers. Sheffield also mentioned that the team had their share of what he called freak injuries last season. Those players are now healthy and looking to play.
Mikaelsen is one of those players who will be back on the court. Now that her foot fracture has healed, the outside hitter originally from Askim, Norway, is eager to contribute to the team once again.
“I so wanted to play last year, but I’m proud of the team and happy for what they accomplished,” said Mikaelsen. “I’m excited for what’s coming.”
While Sheffield looks forward to the challenges of working with a fully-stocked team, he isn’t fixed on any particular match in the upcoming season. “The most exciting match is the next match,” he said with his typical in-the-moment mindset.
Though many UW players mentioned they will be focused on each match as it comes, it’s clear they are all chomping at the bit to start competing.
For Carlini, a big part of the excitement is playing home matches. She realized during the off-season how much she enjoyed the Badger fans’ enthusiastic support and she can’t wait for the first home game in the Field House. “I’ve missed the fans,” she said.
Thompson weighed in on how she’s approaching the onset of competition. “We all have high expectations for this season,” she said. “We know we won’t get anything handed to us, but we are still thinking big.”
A thoughtful Morales described her excitement in a way that resonates with athletes and fans alike: “I’m ready for the journey to begin.”
Originally published in October 2014