The list of programs that have won an NCAA volleyball championship is an exclusive one.
In 37 seasons only 10 schools have ever won a title and in the past 12 years Nebraska, Penn State and Stanford have accounted for 10 of them. Those same 10 schools also have provided the runner-up 29 times.
The last newcomer to be initiated was Washington in 2005 and the Huskies are the only team with just one title.
Kelly Sheffield believes the membership roll is due to expand soon, and he’d like to think that his University of Wisconsin program is among those at the front of the line with a shot at breaking through that barrier.
With the bulk of his roster returning from this year’s team that finished 22-10 and ranked No. 12 in the final coaches’ poll, Sheffield thinks the Badgers are among the handful of championship contenders next season and beyond.
“I’m really excited about the players we’ve got coming back,” Sheffield said. “I’m really excited about the potential and the opportunities in front of this group. We’ll still be a young team next year.
“There’s no reason why this group shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Let’s see what kind of special team we can have.’ I’m sure this group is thinking, ‘Let’s add another school to the list of teams that been able to win it all.’ They should be thinking that. You want them thinking that.”
Despite the historical precedent to the contrary, Sheffield sees the playing field becoming more even for the perennial powers and those who aspire to join their ranks. He sees more schools like UW making greater investments into volleyball with increased pay for assistant coaches, expanded support staff like strength coaches, nutritionists and massage therapists and regular charter flights.
The proliferation of club volleyball has expanded the talent pool to the point where elite players are being spread around to more programs.
“You see more programs that are putting investment into these athletes and more teams being committed to playing at the highest level,” Sheffield said. “That’s why you’re seeing people knocking at the door.
“You’re going to see a lot more different teams winning championships in the very near future. Now, these teams that have won them aren’t going to go away, but the pool has gotten a lot deeper. There are more people in the deep end in our sport than there’s ever been.”
And after a year of competing against, and frequently coming up just a little short, against some of the best teams in the country, the Badgers are eager to get on with their next chapter.
“There’s a lot of excitement right now with our players,” Sheffield said. “They want to take a week off and get right back to it. They want August to get here right now.”
With about eight months to go before the start of practice, Sheffield discussed an array of topics about the team’s prospects.
Badgers fans are likely to see twice as much of Dana Rettke next season. After earning National Freshman of the Year and first-team All-American honors this season, the 6-foot-8 middle blocker will get every chance to play all six rotations next season, Sheffield said.
“We’re certainly going to look at that, and it is a real serious look,” he said. “I think our highest end potential as a program is her playing six rotations. She could be incredible back there.
“She doesn’t have any fear in the back court. She likes digging. She’ll jump in as many times as she can in defensive drills. She’s not afraid to go to the floor. Offensively, I think she could be a weapon unlike we’ve seen. There’s not a lot of really high level back row attackers in the women’s game. I think Dana can be one of those players who could be a real weapon from the back court.”
Sheffield’s primary concern is whether Rettke has the strength to pull it off. Her frame is considerably different than premier back row attackers like Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer, Penn State’s Simone Lee and Purdue’s Danielle Cuttino.
“You don’t see 6-8 players at age 19 that are taking that many swings front row and back row,” he said.
“If she’s not ready to do that from a strength component, we’re not going risk her health or take away from her effectiveness in the front court to be able to add that. But I’d certainly love to have that.”
One missing element from the Badgers during Sheffield’s tenure has been that terminating outside hitter that is a staple of most championship level teams. Next year he expects to have two of them in Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg.
“Those are two terminating outsides,” Sheffield said. “Molly is the only terminating outside since we’ve been here.”
While the Badgers have had some effective outsides in recent years like Ellen Chapman, Deme Morales and this year’s seniors Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis, they’ve had to rely more on accuracy and variety of shots for their kills.
Haggerty and Loberg, on the other hand, can overpower defenders.
“Most of our other hitters can’t beat the digger, they can’t blow up a digger,” Sheffield said. “Grace can go up and a digger can be sitting on the line shot and Grace can blow that digger up. Molly’s got that capability as well. Molly has a little bit more of an off-speed game.”
Loberg gave a hint of what she can do when she was inserted into the lineup during the NCAA tournament and averaged 4.40 kills per set and hit .371 in three matches.
Haggerty was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2016, but she sat out this past season following back surgery. Sheffield is confident that she will be back at full strength next season.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” he said. “The best thing that happened for her was the season being done. Now it allows her mind to just be thinking ahead. She spent a lot of the season frustrated that she couldn’t help out and the close losses just ate her up.
“Now it’s in the rear view mirror. Her jump touch numbers right now are exactly where it was pre-surgery. There’s not a single person with her (medical) team that doesn’t feel really good about where she’s at and what the future holds for her.”
Mariah Whalen, who missed most of her freshman year with a knee injury, is expected to provide depth on the outside.
Sheffield is as excited as anyone to see Danielle Hart in action after the 6-4 freshman middle/opposite redshirted this season. He’s just not sure when her time will come.
“Danielle is going to be a really good player here,” Sheffield said. “The question is when? Is it going to be this coming year or is it in two years? I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on her.
“She’s on the path that she needs to be, a path you’re excited to see her on. She’s closing the gap on some people. When that happens, I don’t know.”
As promising a player as Hart is, barring injury, she doesn’t appear to have a clear path to playing time next season with Rettke and senior-to-be Tionna Williams back in the middle and redshirt-junior Madison Duello having made steady progress on the right side, particularly as a blocker.
“She’s got four more years,” Sheffield said. “That kid wants to be playing. That’s a big goal of hers, to be in the lineup next year. But she would have to be jumping over players that have a lot more experience than she has.”
The departure of Bates and Gillis will create a couple vacancies in the back court rotation and passing pattern. Sheffield expects Haggerty to step into Bates’ six-rotation role and sees potential in Loberg as a passer. And like Rettke, each also could provide a powerful back row attack option.
The two staples of the back court, however, will be rising juniors Tiffany Clark and M.E. Dodge. After some unsettling moments, each came on strong late in the season. Clark was not expected to play this season after transferring from Michigan, but was granted a surprise waiver by the Big Ten just before the start of conference play.
She shortly took over at libero, replacing Dodge, who had taken on that role when Bates was needed up front. As a defensive specialist Dodge struggled for a time after being shifted to right back, but her play improved noticeably down the stretch.
“Something clicked with M.E. starting with the match at Penn State,” Sheffield said. “Coming out of that match she was a different player. She was a person that a lot of people were serving, and rightfully so, in the first part of the season. Then by the end of the year she was making them pay for that.
“The second half of the season for M.E. was dramatically different. She became very good defending the slide. You feel a lot better about her. We’re finally getting the M.E. Dodge we all knew she could be the second half of the season.
“Tiffany was an exciting defensive player coming in. I think everybody could see that from day one. Her passing numbers were quite a bit better by the end of the year.”
Sheffield recently was asked by his dad if Tionna Williams’ troublesome leg was getting worse as the season wore on. It was a natural assumption.
“You look at the armor on her and you think she’s worse,” Sheffield said. “But she was actually feeling better. Tionna has had leg issues since before she got here, but going into the tournament she was feeling better than she has in a long time.”
Williams has been troubled by shin splints and had a stress fracture in her left tibia last year. To cut down on the wear, she has been given a couple days off each week in practice to limit her jumping. The plan is for her to take it easy during the spring season.
Fellow senior-to-be Amber MacDonald also has had long-term issues with her wrist. It hasn’t been decided yet whether to just give it rest or if it will require surgery.
While the nonconference schedule is still taking shape, it should provide enough elite competition to put the Badgers in position to contend for the right to host a regional.
The Badgers will play Florida State and North Carolina the first weekend in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Minnesota. They will host at least one weekend, with traditional power Texas set to come to the UW Field House. The Badgers also will play in a meet at Marquette, with one weekend still to be determined.
For what it's worth
PrepVolleyball.com writer Chris Tobolski already has come out with his prediction for next year's championship, which will be held in Minneapolis.
After running through the likely favorites, he picks Stanford to win the title, beating Wisconsin in the final.