MADISON – Kelly Sheffield has created a budding dynasty with the volleyball program at the University of Wisconsin.
Don’t believe? Save for Wisconsin football and basketball, how many other programs on campus could pack their home arena for a 1 p.m. match on a Friday?
The third-ranked Badgers rewarded the early weekend crowd of 6,012 (a sellout) with a five-set comeback over Ohio State (25-15, 22-25. 29-31, 25-22, 15-13).
“Wow for the fans for packing the Field House,” Sheffield said. “Really when we needed them, how loud they were. A lot of people called in sick or skipped work or class to get in here. I’m not sure we did that without the fans and how they were. That was incredible.”
Freshman Molly Haggerty had a match-high 22 kills for Wisconsin (28-4), which will face No.6 Stanford (24-7) in Saturday’s regional final (5 p.m., ESPNU) for the right to advance to the Final Four next weekend in Columbus, Ohio.
Sheffield’s work with Wisconsin in his short tenure can be seen in two areas. The first are the banners that hang on the south end of the Field House that show the national tournament appearances, a list that abruptly ended after 2007.
In the four years under Sheffield, the Badgers have added a national runner-up appearance in 2013, an Elite Eight appearance in 2014, a Sweet 16 berth last year and now – at worst – an Elite Eight appearance this year.
In four years Sheffield is 13-3 (.813) in the N.C.A.A tournament
“I’m proud of these guys,” Sheffield said, who also helped the program win its first Big Ten championship – another banner – since 2001 two years ago. “I think that’s where the thought is. You’re happy for them. This team, they love the sport so much, they love playing, they love being in the gym … The seniors has put so much into it, you’re happy they’ve earned the right for one more opportunity.”
The other area is the chemistry on the court. Wisconsin ascended to No.1 in the country for the first time in program history in mid-October and were promptly spanked in a sweep by No.3 Minnesota. Nine days later UW took another sweep on the chin at No.1 Nebraska.
Since then the Badgers won 10 of its final 11 regular-season matches, knocking off four ranked teams along the way, to finish in a tie for second in a Big Ten conference that put eight teams in the tournament and six in the Sweet 16.
“A lot of that chemistry comes from practice and recreating those moments in practice, these big moments,” senior setter Lauren Carlini said, likely soon to be a four-time All-American. “When we get into match time, it’s kind of natural. When we get into matches, (the chemistry has) been stronger each and every time we played. When those big moments come down to it at the end of games, that’s when we are the strongest together … That chemistry is really what pulled us through the game.”
That grinder of the season dealt plenty of adversity throughout the way, which turned out to pay off huge dividends.
After cruising in the first set, Wisconsin was out hit in its second-set loss and couldn’t close two set points before Ohio State (22-13) delivered on its fifth set point in the third. Couple that with the fact that Wisconsin was down 19-14 in the fourth with its season on the brink, senior captain Haleigh Nelson delivered the poignant message when things seem be unraveling.
“The road wasn’t going to end for us tonight there,” Nelson said, summarizing her speech. “This wasn’t going to be the last match that I played in with these people that I love so much, and I just wanted them to know that we were going to take the moment back. We were going to win that match.”
UW did take it back, winning the fourth set on an 11-3 run with a combination of three kills by Haggerty, three combo blocks from Carlini and Tionna Williams and the unsung heroics of a role player.
Subbed in with her team trailing 19-15, 5-4 sophomore libero Amber MacDonald seemingly had her hand in every play, whether it be diving on the floor for crucial digs to keep points alive or striking an ace, to help the Badgers get to the finish line.
Sheffield continues to assemble a star-studded list of recruits but it was the former walk-on from Georgia that arguably had the biggest hand in keeping the Badgers alive.
“We’re not going into the fifth without her,” Sheffield said of MacDonald.
Based on having the top RPI in the sport, Wisconsin earned home-court advantage in the regionals for the first time since 2000. That season ended with a berth in the national championship game. This group has that same mindset, only they want to finish the job.
“It’s just embracing those big moments,” Carlini said. “That’s one thing that we kept saying during the huddles, during the timeouts, this is the moments we play for. This is the moments that make or break our national championship run. In those moments, it’s having that confidence in each other, trusting each other that we are going to do our jobs and get them done and execute.
“In those moments, just being a championship-caliber team is huge.”