‘We’re scientists proper now’: Wisconsin volleyball’s unconventional path to success

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By Calvin S. Nelson

WAUNAKEE, Wis. – A number of hours after apply begins with gamers juggling tennis balls and Def Leppard rattling by means of the fitness center, a short time after serving teams are divided into Packers followers and non-Packers followers, Kelly Sheffield sits in a wine bar and describes his first workplace as a school volleyball head coach. This was at Albany. He shared house with rakes, shovels and snowmobiles belonging to the grounds crew. He assumes his pc was the primary one ever made. For the primary house match, he scrubbed web poles carrying his go well with. 13 folks confirmed up.

This viewers, on this Tuesday evening, is into it. It needs to be. We’re a brief drive north of Wisconsin’s campus. Additionally it’s $100 a head to get in.

“B.S. and Bourbon” is the occasion, with a part of the proceeds redirected to volleyball NIL efforts. Storytelling is required, and Sheffield cycles by means of his library of hits. How he inherited the varsity’s “occasion staff,” as he places it, and someway it reached the NCAA championship match that winter of 2013. How he schemed to get air con put in in UW Discipline Home. How he ticked off the Huge Ten and tv networks with a tweet about protection. How Waunakee police as soon as pulled him over as a result of he was following his younger daughter in his automobile close to a park and somebody known as in a suspicious driver.

Folks snigger between sips, however there’s a puff, too, when the visitor of honor jokes that he can’t speak about his enjoying profession as a result of there isn’t one. It’s a seminal reality, and but, wildly, information to some patrons: Sheffield runs a volleyball powerhouse having by no means competed within the sport. How their coach has carried out that little bit of alchemy, how he’s develop into a filter-free advocate for the sport whereas constructing a staff positioned to chase one other nationwide title, is actually a thriller to them.

He doesn’t want all evening to clarify that half.

“If I didn’t ask questions,” Sheffield tells the gang at Crimson & White Winebar, “I wouldn’t be the place I’m proper now.”

Wisconsin’s volleyball staff received the 2021 NCAA championship. (Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Pictures through Getty Photographs)

As of Thanksgiving week, the entire is 559 wins in 22-plus seasons throughout three jobs, together with 18 appearances within the NCAA Match. Wisconsin volleyball has reached 5 Last Fours, and Kelly Sheffield has been on the sideline for 4 of them. It was 4 straight Huge Ten championships till a loss at then-No. 16 Purdue on Friday put a fifth out of attain. This stopped being quirky a very long time in the past. Truly, this isn’t even the primary time a head coach with zero enjoying expertise has led a volleyball leviathan, nor the primary time such a coach has acquired a paycheck from this explicit college. John Cook dinner — the top coach in Madison from 1992-98 — checks each containers, and he’s bringing unbeaten No. 1 Nebraska to city on Friday for a rematch of a five-set epic performed on Oct. 21.

Nonetheless, this is the primary time a traditionally aggressive program has a coach with a nationwide championship trophy displayed on an finish desk, and it’s slightly preposterous that “18-year-old eighth grade cross-country coach” is among the first traces on his resume. Besides, the Badgers run a system utilized by solely a small fraction of the nation’s 300-plus packages, whereas sometimes doing circus methods earlier than apply or watching Monty Python clips or singing alongside to Earth, Wind & Hearth within the movie room. (On the twenty first of September, naturally, after Sheffield hand-wrote the lyrics on the dry erase board.)

As a result of he didn’t come up in thrall to the game’s conventions, Wisconsin’s coach sees issues eclectically. He doesn’t consider there’s a restrict to discoverable solutions within the sport. Assume like a scientist, Sheffield tells his staff, over and again and again. “Generally you’re testing issues out and it’s not all the time going to be good,” says junior Anna Smrek, the Badgers’ 6-foot-9 – that’s appropriate, 6-foot-9 – center blocker/proper facet hitter. “It’s type of like a speculation. You’re working issues out. It’s not your assertion but, proper?”

It’s the enjoyable within the 53-year-old’s fascination with volleyball — “Each match, there’s a path to successful, and I’m obsessive about looking for that,” Sheffield says — and it’s maybe solely exceeded by how he fell into it.

He grew up in Muncie, Ind., and the extent of his volleyball expertise was placing a cutout of a ball on his head and cheering for a Burris Excessive College staff that was within the midst of successful 21 state championships in 35 seasons. He was a pupil at Ball State when a former highschool classmate known as to ask if Sheffield had seen her boyfriend at a bar the earlier evening. Because it occurred, the previous classmate was teaching Burris’ junior varsity staff. Because it occurred, Sheffield was a single faculty man. So he supplied to assist, ought to assist ever be wanted from somebody who knew subsequent to nothing concerning the sport.

His first yr was 1989. The staff went undefeated. He’d plunged into Muncie’s volleyball incubator at peak temperature. “I cherished the methods,” Sheffield says. “I cherished the techniques, I cherished the programs. I cherished the problem of not understanding, however the chase of attempting to know.” As he added duties with Munciana Volleyball Membership, he visited any apply he might, from highschool groups to Rick Majerus’ basketball exercises at Ball State to the school’s marching band rehearsals. He stuffed authorized pads with exacting particulars: names of drills. The place the coach stood. The phrases popping out of his or her mouth. He would spend three hours on the Ball State pupil union writing a two-hour apply plan. He hit in opposition to a wall, repeatedly, to show himself good hand contact so he might enter balls correctly in apply and truly get issues finished.

He bartended at evening and obsessed with teaching throughout the day, working any camp or clinic that may have him. “This wasn’t a couple of profession in any respect,” Sheffield says. “I used to be having a blast.”

After Sheffield labored a Bowling Inexperienced camp throughout his mid-20s, then-Falcons coach Denise Van De Walle really useful him to longtime Houston coach Invoice Walton for a limited-earnings place. Sheffield labored Walton’s camp after which interviewed for the gig. His first impression was … not nice. Walton requested Van De Walle why she despatched him this loser who ordered a Weight loss plan Coke as a substitute of a beer. “He known as me up and stated, ‘I don’t need to rent you, however Denise is making me,’” Sheffield recollects. He packed his automobile in two hours, drove 20 extra, and made the second exercise of two-a-days in the summertime of 1997, the beginning of a brand new path price a tidy $12,000 a yr.

However then, all alongside, Sheffield has felt like he’s getting paid to do one thing he’d pay somebody to let him do. It satisfies the aggressive urges of a man who needs to wager on which elevator will open first, or which grocery retailer line will transfer quickest. It feeds a compulsion to determine issues out. The closest Sheffield will get to explaining it: He was as soon as the youngest Eagle Scout in Indiana historical past. After which somebody put him in cost of a faculty volleyball staff.

“Should you’re going to start out one thing,” Sheffield says, “let’s fricking go.”

Which suggests questions. All of the questions. Just like the time at Dayton he puzzled why the band didn’t present up for volleyball matches, and the response “Properly, it by no means has” wasn’t adequate. “Kelly doesn’t have the bias of expertise to maintain him from reaching excessive,” says Wisconsin affiliate head coach Brittany Dildine, who has been on Sheffield’s workers since 2009.

How else to clarify these first frenzied months in Madison in 2013? Sheffield interviewed in a go well with he borrowed from his brother-in-law, ran out of gasoline throughout the transfer from Dayton and inherited a roster with 4 future first- or second-team All-People … however not numerous course or discretion. The Badgers had missed 4 straight NCAA Tournaments. One of many first staff conferences lasted three hours. “We needed to be taught to be powerful,” says Wisconsin assistant coach Annemarie Hickey, who was then a senior. “It was very, ‘What we’re going to attempt to do is tough,’ and he laid all of it out in entrance of us.”

That group reached the nationwide championship sport as a No. 12 seed, shedding to Penn State. The bar hasn’t lowered since.

Prompt success, for the top coach whose profession began within the equal of an tools shed. It’s ironic provided that you weren’t in that Chevy Tahoe on the street from Dayton to Madison way back. Someplace alongside the best way, Dildine considered a vital query.

“Properly,” she stated, “what are we going to do at Wisconsin?”

Her boss checked out her, incredulous.

“What are you speaking about?” Sheffield replied. “We do what we do. We simply do it there.”

Three days after developing irritatingly quick within the most-watched regular-season volleyball match ever — that five-set inferno at Nebraska that  delivered 612,000 viewers — Wisconsin fills its movie room and a really matter-of-fact dialogue meanders to the idea of belief. Should you’re in a spot the place you’re attempting to do an excessive amount of, the top coach says, you’re shedding belief. Doesn’t matter if the fitness center is a kiln and it’s so loud the vitriol merges into one limitless, thrashing soundwave.

We do our factor, he says. We do our factor and we’re adequate.

Wisconsin volleyball’s factor, principally, is a miasmic stream of concepts tailored to, and executed by, extraordinarily versatile and gifted gamers. There may be construction. However there is no such thing as a permanence. Solely the time being, till the subsequent thought. It’s what you get a decade into the Kelly Sheffield expertise, with a roster constructed to meet his wildest goals. “I might by no means need to be inside Kelly’s mind,” Hickey says. “I believe it will be exhausting. However that’s what makes him so good at what he does.”

Wisconsin works as a result of it could change. In each manner.

Smrek was a aggressive dancer till she was 14 years previous. Setter Izzy Ashburn performed three sports activities in highschool. (She additionally dropped band after one yr.) Center blocker/proper facet hitter Devyn Robinson performed basketball earlier than dropping it for volleyball and likewise ran monitor. The positional pigeonholing prevalent in youth volleyball? All of it however vanishes right here. Smrek by no means skilled on the proper facet till the day Wisconsin coaches floated the notion. Robinson, equally, was recruited as a center and added the hitter coaching on arrival. Ashburn got here in as a setter and has been deployed as a defensive specialist, a hitter, a center and a passer earlier than returning to setting the final two seasons.

Julia Orzol was, nicely, unhealthy at diving when she bought to Wisconsin. Cut up her chin on the ground 3 times one preseason. Dildine, at one level, took Orzol to a pole vault pit and threw balls for 45 minutes as Orzol laid out for them. And in that Oct. 21 match in opposition to Nebraska, Orzol shifted from outdoors hitter to libero. “Should you return and watch a few of her digs, she was Superwoman,” Dildine says. “And none of these had been digs she was making even two weeks (earlier than).”

Julia Orzol wasn’t nice at diving when she arrived at Wisconsin, however she ultimately mastered the talent. (Graham Stokes / Icon Sportswire through Getty Photographs)

No concept is past a strive. “Placing us in spots the place we could also be uncomfortable,” Robinson says, “is the place we develop.”

The result’s freedom to do what many others received’t. Halfway by means of 2022, Sheffield had a quasi-radical thought. He had wonderful setters in Ashburn and M.J. Hammill. He had outrageous dimension with Smrek and 6-foot-7 center Carter Sales space. He had elite hitters within the 6-2 Robinson and 6-4 Sarah Franklin. He surmised he might get extra dimension on the web and extra firepower on the ground if Wisconsin switched from the ever present “5-1” rotation to a “6-2” system, which required a timeshare at setter.

It wasn’t a light-weight bulb flickering on. It was a dozen alarm clocks going off without delay. “Folks instantly had been like, you’re loopy,” Ashburn says. “Why are you even attempting that?” Sheffield estimates perhaps 5 % of 300-plus Division I groups make use of the “6-2.” He believes Southern California was the final staff to win a nationwide title working the system, within the early aughts. Wisconsin? Misplaced in 5 units to Pittsburgh within the Elite Eight a yr in the past and has received 24 of 27 matches this season. The offense ranked No. 2 nationally each in hitting share (.310) and blocks per set (3.01) getting into the penultimate weekend of the common season.

Throughout a European exhibition tour final summer time, Sheffield recommended Ashburn and Hammill take turns working matches in a 5-1, simply because. They declined. It wasn’t who Wisconsin was. “No questions, no selfishness — simply discover the stream of the sport individually and collectively and talk,” Ashburn says. “It actually is a bonus to have one other setter’s eyes from the bench, letting you recognize what they’re seeing, or what success they’re having.”

Sheffield concedes none of this occurs with out what he describes as a “paradigm shift” at Wisconsin; a strong, uncompromising dedication to resourcing volleyball. It started with the air con and getting the wasps out of the Discipline Home roof. Then got here a brand new locker room and a brand new ground and a brand new scoreboard. Now Wisconsin charters to street video games. Mindfulness coaches are a textual content away. Final offseason, the Badgers acquired Oura rings and weighted blankets and pads that change the temperature of their beds as a part of a program-wide sleep examine. “How it’s right here,” says Franklin, who performed two years at Michigan State earlier than transferring in, “will not be even near how it’s at different faculties.”

All volleyball packages would really like extra stuff. Fewer benefit from the institutional crucial to acquire it. “Annually (Sheffield) seems for issues we will dive into deeper,” affiliate head coach Gary White says. “If one thing new comes out, we’re like, might we construct that into our program? How can we profit from this info? We’re all the time in search of that.”

Which brings us to 4:26 p.m. on a Tuesday in October, and the pop-up lab inside UW Discipline Home.

“We’re scientists proper now,” the top coach tells his staff.

The Badgers are nicely into the season, however what appears like strong floor all the time floats on one thing extra fluid. Right now’s take a look at topic is tempo. Wisconsin hits with ample velocity on the web and the again row. Sheffield thinks his staff goes gradual in the course of the ground when it doesn’t should. He needs his hitters to be athletic and speed up, which requires a distinct type of feed from the setter. And this requires everybody to rehearse the state of affairs repeatedly whereas speaking about the place the ball is or needs to be.

9 minutes in, Sheffield hits pause. It’s not fairly getting there. He traces the hitters up single-file. One after the other, they strategy and swing. No site visitors. Simply timing and mechanics and dialogue. The experiment, lowered to its core parts. “Some locations are like, it doesn’t matter what our hitter’s share is, we’re working this tempo, and that’s it,” Hammill says. “In these moments, it’s very collaborative to what’s going to get us the very best outcomes.”

It’s the intense work amid the dodgeball contests and “Anchorman” clips and staff area journeys to see Bruce Springsteen in Zurich on the finish of that Europe tour. The science juxtaposed with calculated insanity.

That alchemy, although, is within the moments when it’s laborious to inform the distinction.

Like tennis balls juggled to hone hand-eye coordination. Or the one preseason Sheffield needed to see much less spin on units, and he had Hammill and Ashburn set balloons. They thought it was ridiculous. It labored. After all.

“He’s only a huge child,” Franklin says, “who is aware of volleyball rather well.”

Lately, sure, generally the massive child acts up. He has his causes.

On March 19, 2022, Kelly Sheffield despatched a pair tweets.

A yr and a half later in a wine bar, Sheffield recollects the go to from a Wisconsin administrator provoked by these ideas. ESPN despatched a message. The Huge Ten reached out. The Huge Ten Community did, too. Not completely satisfied, he was advised.

So be it, Sheffield replied.

“You’re prepared to be affected person for an period of time,” he says, “after which let’s lower the crap.”

These aren’t his questions on the right way to elevate faculty volleyball. These are his calls for. His profession, in spite of everything, is a mockery of boundaries to entry. Folks pay cash simply to listen to him speak. Buyers acknowledge Franklin, the ebullient team-leader in kills, at Plato’s Closet and ask for photos. To Sheffield, it’s not random. It’s proof of idea.

Similar to 92,003 followers watching a volleyball match performed in a soccer stadium at Nebraska in August, the biggest crowd ever to observe a girls’s sporting occasion. A few weeks later, Wisconsin performed Marquette at Fiserv Discussion board in Milwaukee, and the 17,037 attendees set an NCAA document for largest attendance at an indoor regular-season match. And, what have you learnt, in late October, Wisconsin and Minnesota performed the primary volleyball match broadcast on FOX. Huge will get larger. Presumptions shrivel.

In reality, Sheffield provides, inside 48 hours of Wisconsin’s gripping first tilt with Nebraska, officers from Lambeau Discipline reached out about internet hosting a volleyball match.

The coach needs assurances of a sellout. A plan to make it an epic expertise for followers and the groups. That’s what Sheffield sees, even when others can’t but.

If everybody could make that occur? Let’s fricking go, he says.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Pictures: Jamie Schwaberow / Getty; courtesy College of Wisconsin) 

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