Kelli Bates could probably give stubborn lessons to a mule.

Call her plucky, hard-headed or just determined, it is a mindset that has helped Bates find success at an elite level with the University of Wisconsin volleyball team. It’s also a mentality that for a time jeopardized her ability to remain with the UW program.

And ultimately it was that obstinance that led her to ignore the suggestion that she might be better off elsewhere, allowing her to emerge as a selfless senior leader of the No. 5 Badgers.

Still stubborn, yes, but she’s working on it.

“I’m very stubborn and now I know that about myself,” Bates said. “At first I really didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was a huge compliment. I don’t know why I thought that way. But it can be a good thing.”

It was that stubborn streak, after all, that led her to believe she could play at the net for a top tier Big Ten Conference program like UW when most thought her size and slight stature would restrict her to the back court.

UW coach Kelly Sheffield, who has known Bates since she was a freshman at Bradley-Bourbonnais (Illinois) High School and originally recruited her to play at Dayton, saw in her an emerging talent who could become a premier six-rotation player.

“She’s always been a dynamic player,” Sheffield said. “She came here with a lot of talent and a lot of immaturity early on. But she’s well intentioned. She probably reminded me a lot of me when I was younger. I certainly wasn’t the most mature person around when I was her age.”

Bates made an immediate impact as a high-flying outside hitter, earning Big Ten All-Freshman team honors. But her first two seasons were marked by spectacular highs and lows as she struggled to make adjustments and sometimes was resistant to coaching.

“She’s very, very, very stubborn at times,” Sheffield said. “Hard-headed. She’d go into self-protection, which would make it difficult for her to go through the learning process.

“Sometimes when you’re learning new things you take a step backward to have bigger growth and she was not always willing to do that early on. At times she would just shut down and shut off and then get into her own head.

“But she was a player that all the way through has always loved this sport, loved this program and loved competing. She’s had big dreams and high aspirations.”

Turning point

Sheffield, however, began to question whether she could realize those dreams at UW. Those doubts led to a long heart-to-heart talk following her sophomore season.

He recounted the conversation: “I told her ‘You should probably find another coach to play for because I don’t know if I can help you. Ninety percent of Kelli Bates is great and I can’t get through to this other 10 percent. I know it’s frustrating to you and I’m sorry about that, but maybe somebody that’s better skilled can help you with that.’ ”

For Bates, it was a career and, perhaps, life-changing conversation. Of course, her stubborn part immediately rejected the notion of transferring. But she also recognized the need to change her ways.

“That talk was really hard,” Bates said. “It was hard because I never thought that he would’ve said that to me. I trust him so much and hearing those hard things from someone you trust so much is really hard to accept. I had to accept what he was saying that the route I was going wasn’t going to get me far. I wasn’t going to be a good role model for the team and I wanted to be that person for the team.

“But luckily with me being stubborn, I was like, OK, I’m here for a reason. I’ve worked hard, I have talent. But now that switch happened where I had to be really vulnerable and that’s really hard for me.

“I definitely accepted the challenge and I wanted to prove to him that I’m the kind of person that deserves to be here.”

Changing places

The new Bates was put to the test last season when injuries created a need at libero. Suddenly, the player who wouldn’t even consider a school that wanted her to play libero found herself opening the season at that position. And she embraced it with enthusiasm.

She moved back to outside hitter for a time before settling back at libero for the final 11 matches as the Badgers made their run to the NCAA Elite Eight.

This year her situation has been reversed, as injuries have put her back at the net for the first seven matches. But with Lauryn Gillis back in action and Molly Haggerty seemingly on the road to recovery, Bates could well end up back at libero, perhaps as soon as tonight when the Badgers (7-0) face Marquette (4-4) in the Badger Classic at the UW Field House.

It’s taken some time but Sheffield said she has gone from an OK backcourt defender to an exceptional one.

“It’s not the skill set that’s different,” he said. “What’s different is the mindset. She was a player who got her energy off of the stuff that happens at the net — big blocks, big swings. Now all of the sudden you’re not terminating plays. That is a big transition emotionally.”

It’s a transition Bates said she has completed and she is equally comfortable at either position.

“My demeanor at the net was definitely a huge part of my identity but I also realized that I can have that same demeanor in the backcourt,” she said. “So my swagger moved back to the backcourt. I annoy people. I know I frustrated people because I was like, you’re never going to get a ball past me, you’re never going to ace me.

“I would say I wouldn’t love playing libero at every place. Because I’m here with this program and these coaches and these girls, it has made me love it.”

Wherever she’s playing, when Sheffield looks at Bates now he sees a mature player that he can count on every practice, every match, every point.

“Being steady, being a rock to this team is really important to her,” he said. “Being a leader is something she takes very seriously. That’s what it’s about. I tell these guys it’s not about where you’ve been. You want people to have growth. If they leave this program the same as what they came into it, then we haven’t really done anything for them. And they haven’t done anything for themselves.

“So it’s a big-time success story, one that’s going to give her an awful lot of confidence because she was willing to go about things the right way without taking the easy way out. As she’s evolved, it certainly makes you proud and happy and excited for her.”


Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.