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It used to be that going to the NCAA volleyball Final Four was one of the highlights of the season for Kelly Sheffield.

Back in the day, he was active in various coaches’ committees, he would attend all of the open practice sessions to study what other teams did and just soak up the atmosphere surrounding the pinnacle of his sport.

“I used to love it,” he said. “I used to really look forward to it.”

That all changed in 2013 when he led the University of Wisconsin on an improbable run to the national championship match in his first season as coach.

Ever since then going to the Final Four has been an exercise in agony, rife with awkward conversations and funereal condolences.

So it was again this year as Sheffield attended the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, fresh off another close call that saw the Badgers fall one match short for the second time in three years.

“There are some matches over the course of a career that just haunt you and stay with you,” said Sheffield, whose team was eliminated by eventual champion Stanford in the Elite Eight. “So when you’re there and everybody you come across is like, ‘Man, I thought you were going to be here,’ or ‘Man, I was rooting for you, you were so close.’ That’s hard for everybody.

“But I also think there’s a responsibility to go. As coaches when you think about growing the game, you can’t just show up when things are going well and then stick your head in the sand when you’re down in the dumps. I’m not saying I watched every point of every match. There are times you have to get the heck out of there.”

Since returning from Columbus, Sheffield and his staff have been breaking down the performance of this year’s team and turning their attention toward preparing next year’s squad. And while there will be significant personnel changes with the departure of All-Americans Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson and starter Romana Kriskova and the arrival of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the goals will remain much the same.

In broadest terms those goals are to keep improving and remain among that select group of programs capable of winning the national title.

“There are probably a dozen teams that can win it all and we were one of those dozen,” Sheffield said. “And we got beat by one of those people. Stanford won this year and they hadn’t won since 2004. How many times have they had one of the top two or three (recruiting) classes in the country?

“We’re on the cusp. It’s not like we’re failing at something. We’re right there. Can we continue to give ourselves opportunities and how do we get better?”

That task will be challenging with the loss of Carlini, the most accomplished player in program history. She will be succeeded by freshman Sydney Hilley, the top-ranked setter in her class and the No. 3 overall recruit, according to PrepVolleyball.com.

Hilley is one of three freshmen — along with Dana Rettke and Mariah Whalen — who will enroll in January to get a jump start on their careers. She also will be able to train with Carlini during the spring semester.

But the connection between the two begins and ends with their career timelines, Sheffield said.

“She’s not Lauren and she doesn’t want to be Lauren,” he said. “She wants to be Sydney. She wants to be the best Sydney she can be.

“What I want from her is to have a growth mindset. You want her to be in the mindset that maybe I’m not great yet, but I’m going to be.”

Some eight months before their first match, Sheffield isn’t spending much time thinking about just how that team will line up. Key returning players will be senior Lauryn Gillis and sophomore Molly Haggerty at outside hitter; junior middle blocker Tionna Williams; senior libero/outside hitter Kelli Bates; and sophomore M.E. Dodge and junior Amber MacDonald at defensive specialist.

Freshmen Danielle Hart and Rettke could step in at either Nelson’s middle spot or Kriskova’s place on the right side, Sheffield said. Redshirt sophomore Madison Duello and freshmen Grace Loberg and Whalen also figure to be in the mix on the pins.

Sheffield is keeping an open mind as to whether Bates remains at libero or moves back to the outside.

“I look at her as a volleyball player,” he said. “She’s got a lot of different things she can do for us. I’m not pigeon-holing her.”

One player who won’t be back is backup setter Jordan Robbins, who has decided to give up the sport because of recurring injuries.

“It breaks her heart,” Sheffield said of Robbins. “But she’s just in so much pain. You start looking at quality of life.”

Sheffield expects everyone else to return and is open to adding a transfer if the right player comes along. However the roster shakes out, he expects the team to build on the success of this year’s group, which became just the 12th program to be ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll. The Badgers finished the year ranked No. 5, becoming one of just five teams ranked among the top 10 in each of the past four seasons, joining Nebraska, Penn State, Texas and Washington.

And, one of these years, he’s confident UW can become the 11th program to win a national title. Although the closer it gets, the more elusive that goal seems — a point he tried to drive home to Haggerty and Williams, who were on hand for the championship match after being honored as All-Americans.

“I know it was really tough for Molly and Tionna to sit there and watch,” Sheffield said. “I also think it was good for them. They were like, ‘I think I’m bolting, this is hard.’ I said no, you’ve got to stay and let the fire burn in your belly as you’re watching them. Watch the confetti fall and let that stoke the fires and dream that that’s going to be you one of these days.”

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