Before beginning preparations Monday for the NCAA tournament, coach Kelly Sheffield had his University of Wisconsin volleyball players pull up a chair and form a semicircle in front of a whiteboard for a little chat.
During that class session he ran through some numbers that put the season to this point in perspective.
Sheffield pointed out the team’s eight victories over Top 25 opponents were the third-most of any team in the nation, trailing only Stanford and Illinois.
He noted the team that was 0-4 in five-set matches last year and lost its first one this year had won its last four five-setters against teams ranked Nos. 5, 12, 12 and 7 at the time. In those four matches, the opposition hit a combined .070 in the fifth set.
And he mentioned that the team that had struggled at times to close out close sets early in the season had gone 10-2 in sets decided by two points in Big Ten play, with both of those losses coming in the loss to Illinois.
His players soaked up that information, many of them nodding affirmatively as they were revealed. But it’s fair to say none of them were caught by surprise.
“I think it did offer some perspective,” junior libero Tiffany Clark said. “But I think we all already knew how good we are. This is probably the most confident this group has ever felt. We’re just feeling really good right now.”
That is perfect timing as the No. 6 seed Badgers (22-6) begin tournament play tonight against UW-Green Bay (20-10) at the UW Field House, following the opening match between Northern Iowa (24-9) and Pepperdine (21-6).
The Badgers enter the tournament on a six-match winning streak and are coming off an exhilarating five-set victory at Penn State on Saturday night. After some early season struggles, they seem to have found their rhythm with a stingy defense, improved serving and passing, and a more diversified offense led by sophomore setter Sydney Hilley that is not quite as reliant on sophomore Dana Rettke for kills.
Perhaps the biggest source of improvement has been a collective mental toughness honed through a grinding Big Ten schedule, with the conference coming away with five of the top eight seeds in the tournament.
That mindset was on display at Penn State after the Badgers lost the fourth set and then had to fight off four match points to pull out the fifth set 21-19.
Would they have been able to do that earlier in the season?
“I would like to say yes but we’ve grown so much,” redshirt sophomore Molly Haggerty said. “I don’t think last year or earlier this year we would’ve been clutch in the fifth set. I think we would’ve been nervous and second-guessing ourselves.
“Going into that fifth set at Penn State I think we had all the faith in the world and all the trust in each other and I think that’s why we pulled out that win.”
Hilley said the change in the team’s mindset is dramatic.
“It just feels different in those moments,” she said. “It’s no longer panic or fear, like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happens if we lose?’ It’s just all right, get back to work, stay relaxed, stay loose and just be aggressive. It just feels a lot better because everyone is confident and they trust themselves and our team.”
That is the result of a series of lessons learned from difficult times. There was the defensive breakdown in a loss at Baylor and the inexplicable five-set loss at Iowa. And then there were back-to-back home losses to Minnesota and Michigan, after which they found themselves in a 2-0 hole against Purdue. They rallied to win that one in five sets and have been on a roll ever since.
“I think there were a collection of turning points for us,” Clark said. “There wasn’t one that was an exact turning point, but each loss we had we learned from it. You don’t really lose, you learn from things. Those were really good for us because we found out our weaknesses.
“We’ve proven ourselves time and time again to be a super-gritty team. We’ve been through every situation that we could possibly be in in the NCAA tournament. Seriously, we’ve been playing the best teams, down 0-2 and come back. There’s nothing we haven’t seen, so that gives us a lot of confidence.”