Wisconsin volleyball heads to the NCAA Tournament unified by clear purpose and culture

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MADISON, Wis. — Outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara had yet to arrive on Wisconsin’s campus after announcing her transfer from Northwestern last winter when Badgers volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield presented her with an essential task: Take an online personality assessment to help new teammates and coaches understand her communication styles and preferences.

Hmm. That was different. But, as Thomas-Ailara quickly learned, so were a lot of things about Wisconsin’s volleyball program. And that was precisely why she wanted to join one of the sport’s pre-eminent powers in the first place.

Every one of Sheffield’s players was responsible for completing the DISC test. It didn’t matter if they occupied a spot on the bench or earned second-team All-America honors, as Thomas-Ailara did last year. The idea was to learn what made each other tick by assessing four central traits that describe personality: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.

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Over the course of an August team meeting that spanned a couple of hours, including breaks, they shared their findings. Thomas-Ailara recalled standing up to present in front of the team for about 10 minutes to express why she was motivated by steadiness — stable environments, appreciation, cooperation — and why she prioritized support and collaboration. Others addressed their desire to take action or listen more quietly. All of it contributed to a melting pot of diverse needs that, when stirred together and distilled properly, had the potential to create something great.

“Some people go up and there’s a lot of questions on, ‘When you get in this head space and I see you this way, what do you need from us?’” said Wisconsin setter Izzy Ashburn, a fifth-year senior and team co-captain. “‘Is there anything that we can say to get you out of it? Or are you a quick hand-hold person? Are you a person that needs a certain trigger word? Are you someone that doesn’t like this style of communication?’ It’s something we talk about a lot, and it’s something we reference a lot. We always have every person’s report accessible to us. It is really cool.”

Izzy Ashburn, right, thinks the team’s emphasis on communication has been a boon. (Dylan Widger / USA Today)

Those evaluations alone are not why Wisconsin has reached 11 consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Sheffield and enters this year’s tournament as a No. 1 seed. Wisconsin (27-3) is set to begin its quest for a second national championship in three seasons when it plays a first-round match against Jackson State (17-12) on Thursday night at the UW Field House. But it does speak to the emphasis placed on togetherness, camaraderie, competition and accountability that help to make the program what it is: a powerhouse with perennially high expectations. Players understand not only each other’s needs but what buttons to push to ensure they consistently elevate the group’s level of play.

“We know the expectation, and we uphold that ourselves,” said middle blocker Carter Booth, who transferred in from Minnesota during the offseason. “That’s player-governed, not coach-governed. And I think that’s what makes us so special is that we don’t need to be hand-held through the process. If you’re bought in, you’re bought in.”

When people talk about the culture of a team in sports, it can be a catch-all term that is tough to decipher or break down. Sheffield makes it clear what he values: competitiveness and discipline but also freedom and joy.

“We want a place where people can compete their asses off and people that enjoy competing,” Sheffield said. “People that team is more important than individual. It’s not a place where I think we do particularly well with prima donnas, the world revolving around them. We want people that are basically gym rats. They love to train. They love to work on their game. They may have other interests, as well, academic interests or whatever it is. But they love being in the gym. I would say people that kind of have a bring-it mentality.”

The best way to understand what that bring-it mentality means, Ashburn said, is to watch the excitement that players have for the process over the course of a long season, whether it’s during 6 a.m. weight-training sessions or the most grueling on-court practices. The energy and chatter inside the UW Field House on Tuesday night, as players prepared roughly 48 hours before the NCAA Tournament opener, was evident while they honed attacking strategies.

All business at the Covelli Center. pic.twitter.com/CHr9dDLK3i

— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) September 27, 2023

But Ashburn insisted it would have been the same if observers wandered into the gym on, say, a random weekday in September. There is fulfillment in understanding that each day brings opportunity to push for more, with an aim toward achieving one common goal. And while Ashburn said she can’t imagine any other way to play, she has heard from teammates over the years who arrived from other schools where practices felt like a drag, with players at midseason counting down the days until the end.

Some might argue that it’s easier to feel engaged when a program consistently wins, as Wisconsin has under Sheffield. In his first season at Wisconsin in 2013, he turned a team that went 17-16 and finished 10th in the conference the previous year into a 28-win team that reached the national championship game. Sheffield’s record is 291-60, which amounts to a winning percentage of .829, and the Badgers have been ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 for 165 consecutive polls. But it takes just as much work, if not more, to stay near the top as it does to get there.

Here’s an example that Booth gives of standard setting and bar raising. When asked to relay the most challenging moment from her first season at Wisconsin, she cited the Badgers’ run to winning an astounding 30 consecutive sets. The streak began when Wisconsin came from two sets down on the road to defeat No. 3 Florida 3-2 on Sept. 17. Over the next month, the Badgers won nine straight Big Ten matches 3-0 before losing the opening set in a loss at Nebraska.

“People are probably going to be like, ‘Wait, that was hard?’” Booth said. “That’s a challenging moment because you get to a point where you’re competing against yourself only, day in and day out. You’re asking, ‘How can I get better but keep it to a level where it’s not obsessive and it’s not destructive?’

“And I think that we had to go through a period of time where we were raising the bar for ourselves every single day, even if we weren’t being tested out on the court as much. It allowed us to recognize our level and where we were at, and it allowed us to learn what we need to propel ourselves forward, no matter what happens.”

It’s no wonder, then, why so many players from other schools have such respect for Wisconsin and why the Badgers present an intriguing option for potential transfers. Booth, who played against Wisconsin twice as a freshman at Minnesota last season, was a first-team all-Big Ten performer. She was so impressed while standing across the net from Wisconsin with the passion and investment its players and coaches possessed that Booth’s first text after entering the transfer portal went to Sheffield around 11 p.m. on a weeknight. She still had his number from when she was recruited as an eighth-grader. Her message, she recalled, was to the point: Hey. I want to play for you. Sheffield called back the next morning, and Booth committed without even visiting campus again.

Sheffield prides himself on honesty and transparency through the recruiting process. He never guarantees playing time and explains exactly what the expectations will be at Wisconsin. Players understand that it’s his responsibility to find the best talent he can and let the players battle it out for court time. But it’s also his responsibility to ensure that whoever he brings in fits with the standard already in place. What he’s realized over time is how much newcomers, particularly those from other schools, appreciate what Wisconsin has and how the program is run. Booth described Sheffield and Wisconsin’s program as an open book, saying nothing different from what players are initially told goes on behind closed doors because “the doors are glass.”

“What you see is what you get, and that’s what I really appreciated about Kelly and his approach and just this program in general is that it’s not sunshine and daisies all the time,” Booth said. “And that’s real life. We’re about hard work and realism and persevering. And I think that’s an honorable way to play the sport.”

Wisconsin has seven transfers on its roster, four of whom are starters who have joined in the past two seasons. Middle blocker CC Crawford and outside hitter Sarah Franklin arrived before the 2022 season, Crawford after earning second-team all-Big 12 honors at Kansas and Franklin after a first-team all-Big Ten season at Michigan State.

Booth and Thomas-Ailara, much like Crawford and Franklin, seamlessly transitioned because of their personalities, but also because of a willingness by the current players to accept them. That includes key contributors such as Ashburn, middle block/right side hitter Devyn Robinson, outside hitter Julia Orzol, setter MJ Hammill and 6-foot-9 middle blocker/right side hitter Anna Smrek. Franklin ranks fifth in the Big Ten in kills per set (4.17) and is coming off a national player of the week performance, while Booth leads the league and ranks fourth nationally in blocks per set (1.55).

“When you have quite a few transfers that are coming in and saying, ‘Man, this culture is really, really good,’ there becomes an appreciation of, ‘All right, this is kind of unique,’” Sheffield said. “But they’ve got to work for the culture. We talked about it. We graduated a big class two years ago, and one of our things was: ‘Hey, you have to fight for the culture. You don’t assume it.’ And when new people come in, they don’t get to set the temperature. The people that have been here set the temperature of it. And they have to be a part of what it is that we’re doing. You don’t just turn it over to somebody else.”

The trust, communication and talent level permeating Wisconsin’s team has the Badgers envisioning big success over the next three weeks as the NCAA Tournament begins. They have demonstrated toughness and resiliency down the stretch, responding from their only consecutive losses of the season by closing with three straight 3-0 wins, including an impressive victory against No. 1 Nebraska at the Field House that avenged an earlier defeat in Lincoln.

What comes next is the toughest challenge of the season, to win six consecutive matches for the national title with a bracket that includes Purdue and Penn State — the other two teams that beat Wisconsin this season. The Badgers believe all their work on and off the court to maintain a high standard and a thriving culture has prepared them for this moment. In fact, they’re counting on it.

“All of us in this program are destined for greatness, so we can all handle it,” Booth said. “If you want to win championships and do great things, then it’s not going to be easy. You have to learn how to do hard things, and I think the way they coach us, they teach us how to do hard things.”

(Top photo: Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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