Badgers volleyball team excited for the future after finishing one win shy of Final Four
That’s one of the mantras for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
Whatever happened on the last play, move on and focus on the next play.
But when your next play that counts is some eight months away, it’s hard to not pause and contemplate the most recent plays.
So while coach Kelly Sheffield met with his players individually this week to talk about the future, they weren’t quite ready to turn the final page of this season just days after seeing their NCAA Final Four dreams die in a tough four-set loss to Illinois in the regional finals.
“How are they doing?” Sheffield said. “There’s a reluctance to move forward. They’re kind of in a weird place right now. They’re very bummed, but there’s also pride in the progress that we’ve made and genuine excitement for the future. I think all of those things are at a meeting point right now.”
The tough part is letting go of a season that began with high aspirations, floundered at times as the team struggled with confidence issues and then reached a crescendo down the stretch as those doubts were vanquished.
The Badgers’ belief had grown so strong over a nine-match winning streak that even when they fell behind 16-8 in that fourth set at Illinois, they still figured they would somehow prevail. They rallied to within one point at 24-23 before their season came to a sudden, stunning end.
“I think most seasons when you lose your last match it’s like that,” Sheffield said. “If it’s not like that, if it doesn’t come to this dramatic halt and you’re not stunned and shocked at the end of it, you’ve either already given up or you’re getting absolutely slaughtered in the match and you know it’s coming to a conclusion.
“It’s hard because even when you’re in that and you know you’re one point away from tying it up and that close to sending it into a fifth set, that’s something that stays with you and haunts you for awhile.”
The Badgers, who finished with a 25-7 record, will have a month or so to sort through those emotions before embarking on a new season that will be accompanied by even greater expectations.
With everyone but middle blocker Tionna Williams set to return, the Badgers figure to be among the favorites to make it to next year’s Final Four in Pittsburgh. That’s a reasonable goal, Sheffield said, considering that returning group includes four players who received All-America honors — middle blocker Dana Rettke (first team), setter Sydney Hilley (second), right side Madison Duello (third) and libero Tiffany Clark (honorable mention).
Sheffield also is encouraged that outside hitter Molly Haggerty showed signs of regaining her freshman brilliance late in the season as she came back from back surgery and that Grace Loberg established herself as a weapon in her first year as a starter.
“There’s new challenges, exciting challenges in front,” Sheffield said. “Just because you return everybody doesn’t guarantee anything. We want to try to win at the highest level, but even more important for us is to try to max out our potential, individually and as a team.
“We’re just trying to be the best us. Are we trying to get to a Final Four? Absolutely. Every year we’re trying to do that.”
Williams, a four-year starter, will not be easy to replace, but Sheffield is confident Danielle Hart will be up to the task.
“Losing Tionna is a big piece,” Sheffield said. “But Danielle is chomping at the bit to get in there. And that kid is not afraid of work. And everybody else is saying let’s do our part to raise our game. The hope is that the starting point is further along than where we were at this time last year.”
The Badgers will get a head start on the 2019 season when they travel to Europe in June for nearly two weeks, with matches lined up against top teams in the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Italy. They will get to practice for 10 days before the trip and the incoming freshman class of setter Izzy Ashburn, outside hitters Courtney Gorum and Liz Gregorski and defensive specialists Anna MacDonald and Emma Whitehead will be included.
Sheffield also is putting the finishing touches on the pre-conference schedule, which will probably include two home meets. They will open again with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at North Carolina, facing the Tar Heels and Florida State. Among the home opponents will be Marquette, Baylor and Louisville.
It’s a schedule that will help build their RPI resume and could set them up to earn a top four seed and the right to host a regional tournament.
“We always like to challenge ourselves,” Sheffield said. “When you ask players what types of matches they want to play in, the best players want to play great teams.
“One thing that’s pretty clear is that our conference is pretty good. We don’t have to schedule the best out of conference because you have enough opportunities here. You’re going to host if you win the Big Ten. Our mindset is to schedule good teams because that’s what we want to play and they’re going to be teams that are going to make us better. Go and win the Big Ten if you want to host.”