Sports

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

WAUNAKEE, Wis. – Just a few hours after follow begins with gamers juggling tennis balls and Def Leppard rattling by means of the gymnasium, 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 university volleyball head coach. This was at Albany. He shared house with rakes, shovels and snowmobiles belonging to the grounds crew. He assumes his laptop was the primary one ever made. For the primary residence match, he scrubbed web poles carrying his swimsuit. 13 folks confirmed up.

This viewers, on this Tuesday evening, is into it. It must 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 “social gathering group,” as he places it, and one way or the other it reached the NCAA championship match that winter of 2013. How he schemed to get air con put in in UW Area Home. How he ticked off the Large 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 automotive close to a park and somebody referred to as in a suspicious driver.

Individuals snicker between sips, however there’s a pant, 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 grow to be a filter-free advocate for the sport whereas constructing a group positioned to chase one other nationwide title, is basically a thriller to them.

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

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


Wisconsin’s volleyball group gained the 2021 NCAA championship. (Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Pictures by way of Getty Photographs)

As of Thanksgiving week, the whole is 559 wins in 22-plus seasons throughout three jobs, together with 18 appearances within the NCAA Match. Wisconsin volleyball has reached 5 Closing Fours, and Kelly Sheffield has been on the sideline for 4 of them. It was 4 straight Large 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 specific faculty. 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 a bit of preposterous that “18-year-old eighth grade cross-country coach” is among the first strains on his resume. Besides, the Badgers run a system utilized by solely a small fraction of the nation’s 300-plus packages, whereas often doing circus methods earlier than follow 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 imagine there’s a restrict to discoverable solutions within the sport. Suppose like a scientist, Sheffield tells his group, over and again and again. “Generally you’re testing issues out and it’s not at all times going to be excellent,” says junior Anna Smrek, the Badgers’ 6-foot-9 – that’s right, 6-foot-9 – center blocker/proper facet hitter. “It’s sort 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 profitable, 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 Faculty group that was within the midst of profitable 21 state championships in 35 seasons. He was a scholar at Ball State when a former highschool classmate referred to 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 group. Because it occurred, Sheffield was a single school man. So he supplied to assist, ought to assist ever be wanted from somebody who knew subsequent to nothing concerning the sport.

His first 12 months was 1989. The group went undefeated. He’d plunged into Muncie’s volleyball incubator at peak temperature. “I cherished the strategies,” Sheffield says. “I cherished the ways, I cherished the methods. I cherished the problem of not figuring out, however the chase of attempting to know.” As he added duties with Munciana Volleyball Membership, he visited any follow he might, from highschool groups to Rick Majerus’ basketball exercises at Ball State to the faculty’s marching band rehearsals. He crammed 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 scholar union writing a two-hour follow plan. He hit towards a wall, time and again, to show himself good hand contact so he might enter balls correctly in follow and really get issues finished.

He bartended at evening and passionate about teaching throughout the day, working any camp or clinic that might have him. “This wasn’t a few 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 advisable 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 Food plan Coke as an alternative of a beer. “He referred to as me up and stated, ‘I don’t wish to rent you, however Denise is making me,’” Sheffield remembers. He packed his automotive 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 12 months.

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 desires to guess 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 group.

“If you happen to’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 “Nicely, 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 swimsuit 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-Individuals … however not numerous course or discretion. The Badgers had missed 4 straight NCAA Tournaments. One of many first group conferences lasted three hours. “We needed to be taught to be robust,” 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.

Immediate 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 way in which, Dildine considered an important query.

“Nicely,” 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 brief 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. If you happen to’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 gymnasium is a kiln and it’s so loud the vitriol merges into one countless, thrashing soundwave.

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

Wisconsin volleyball’s factor, mainly, is a miasmic move of concepts tailored to, and executed by, extraordinarily versatile and proficient gamers. There’s 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 satisfy his wildest desires. “I’d by no means wish to be inside Kelly’s mind,” Hickey says. “I feel it might be exhausting. However that’s what makes him so good at what he does.”

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

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 12 months.) Center blocker/proper facet hitter Devyn Robinson performed basketball earlier than dropping it for volleyball and in addition ran monitor. The positional pigeonholing prevalent in youth volleyball? All of it however vanishes right here. Smrek by no means skilled on the appropriate 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, properly, unhealthy at diving when she acquired to Wisconsin. Cut up her chin on the ground thrice 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 towards Nebraska, Orzol shifted from outdoors hitter to libero. “If you happen to 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 by way of Getty Photographs)

No concept is past a attempt. “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 gained’t. Halfway by means of 2022, Sheffield had a quasi-radical thought. He had glorious 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. “Individuals straight away 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 group to win a nationwide title operating the system, within the early aughts. Wisconsin? Misplaced in 5 units to Pittsburgh within the Elite Eight a 12 months in the past and has gained 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 prompt Ashburn and Hammill take turns operating matches in a 5-1, simply because. They declined. It wasn’t who Wisconsin was. “No questions, no selfishness — simply discover the move 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 Area Home roof. Then got here a brand new locker room and a brand new flooring 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, “shouldn’t be even near how it’s at different colleges.”

All volleyball packages would love extra stuff. Fewer benefit from the institutional crucial to acquire it. “Every year (Sheffield) seems to be for issues we are able to 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 at all times on the lookout for that.”

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

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

The Badgers are properly into the season, however what seems like strong floor at all times floats on one thing extra fluid. Right now’s check topic is tempo. Wisconsin hits with ample velocity on the web and the again row. Sheffield thinks his group goes sluggish in the course of the ground when it doesn’t should. He desires his hitters to be athletic and speed up, which requires a special sort 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 must be.

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

It’s the intense work amid the dodgeball contests and “Anchorman” clips and group 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 wished to see much less spin on units, and he had Hammill and Ashburn set balloons. They thought it was ridiculous. It labored. In fact.

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

As of late, sure, generally the massive child acts up. He has his causes.


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

A 12 months and a half later in a wine bar, Sheffield remembers the go to from a Wisconsin administrator provoked by these ideas. ESPN despatched a message. The Large Ten reached out. The Large Ten Community did, too. Not joyful, he was informed.

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 way to elevate school volleyball. These are his calls for. His profession, in any case, is a mockery of boundaries to entry. Individuals 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.

Identical 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 file for largest attendance at an indoor regular-season match. And, what are you aware, in late October, Wisconsin and Minnesota performed the primary volleyball match broadcast on FOX. Large will get larger. Presumptions shrivel.

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

The coach desires 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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