Collen Neels photo (copy)

Colleen (Neels) Bayer, who was on a junior on the Badgers' 1997 team, helped start what has become a pregame tradition with young UW fans at the Field House.

Colleen Bayer has worn many hats during her 13 years with the University of Wisconsin volleyball program, from All-Big Ten setter to assistant coach to director of operations.

Now she’s going to put on her mom hat.

Bayer is leaving the UW program after spending the last two years as director of operations in order to spend more time with her family.

She will be replaced by Jessica Williams, who held the same position from 2013-15 as part of coach Kelly Sheffield’s initial staff.

When Williams and her husband Andy relocated to Nebraska, Sheffield brought Bayer back to the program where she had been a player from 1995-98 and an assistant coach from 2005-11.

“I don’t know if there are too many people who put in more blood, sweat and tears for this program than her,” Sheffield said. “She’s a Wisconsin Badger all the way to her core. She’s seen a lot and been a part of an awful lot. I’m very appreciative of what she’s done in the two years we’ve worked with her.”

Bayer’s third stint with UW came after she had spent four years as an assistant coach at Georgia under former Badgers All-American Lizzy (Fitzgerald) Stemke.

Shortly after settling back in Madison, her husband Dave was hired as director of operations at the new Milwaukee Sting volleyball club facility in Menomonee Falls. Dave commuted the first year but then they decided to move to Menomonee Falls because he had the more flexible schedule to coordinate with their three children, Max, 12, Ben, 10, and Samantha, 8.

“He could pick the kids up from school and take them to the club,” she said. “It’s a big playground for them.”

Meanwhile, Colleen became the commuter, frequently staying overnight in Madison.

“During the season she was seeing her kids maybe twice a week,” Sheffield said. “You just knew that wasn’t sustainable.”

Bayer had come to the same conclusion.

“It was a lot of strain,” she said. “Too much time away. As much as I love volleyball and what it’s done for me, the places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had, I just can’t give up the time with the kids anymore.”

Bayer leaves with the unique experience of being a part of three coaching eras at UW.

The former Colleen Neels played four seasons under coach John Cook, helping the Badgers to three NCAA tournament appearances and the 1997 Big Ten championship. After two seasons as a defensive specialist and backup setter, she was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten setter.

She returned to UW in 2005 as an assistant coach under Pete Waite for seven seasons, helping the Badgers get to three NCAA tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2005.

“It’s pretty interesting to look back,” Bayer said. “When I came here as a player we were just kind of on the rise and at the end of my career we were a very good team with a Big Ten championship in there.

“When I was here as a coach we had an Elite Eight appearance and some other really great things happened. To come back this time around and see where this program is today, it shows the strength that this university holds and how you can be consistent over a long period of time. I don’t know if that’s possible everywhere. There’s been a lot of success with every coach who’s come here.”

Bayer takes away some special memories from each of her eras.

As a player she recalls when they started the tradition of bringing kids out of the stands for “Varsity” after each match. She got in the habit of picking out the same two little girls each time.

“One time after a match their mom said to me, ‘I just thank you so much. You’re such a great role model for them. They fight over who gets to be you when they play in the backyard.’ I was like, that’s cool because I could remember growing up, being certain Packers or being Michael Jordan in the driveway as I was playing. It’s like, wow, that’s cool.”

As a coach she singled out the 2007 match against eventual national champion Penn State that went five sets before a sellout crowd of 10,326, the second largest ever for volleyball at the Field House, with the Nittany Lions prevailing 15-13 in the final set.

In her latest role she cited arranging for the season opening trip to Hawaii in 2016 and being able to see two players she helped recruit, Lauren Carlini and Tori Blake, complete their careers.

Bayer is looking for some non-volleyball employment in the Milwaukee area, but she will remain connected with the sport.

“I’m not going to be out of volleyball completely with my kids playing and my husband coaching,” she said. “Having access to that facility allows me to maybe get involved in helping out. I’m pretty excited about getting back in the gym a little.”

She’s also happy that there will be a smooth transition as she hands the reins off to Williams. Likewise, Sheffield is excited to welcome her back.

Williams, then Jessica Yanz, played one season for Sheffield at Dayton, earning Atlantic 10 Conference Setter of the Year honors. She then spent two seasons as director of operations there before following Sheffield to UW.

“Jess and I go back a long way,” he said. “It’s awesome to have her back. We joked that every two years they pass the baton to the other one and take a hiatus from me.

“Colleen sacrificed an awful lot. She’s really good in this role. You hear the phrase servant leadership. That’s what that job is. It can be a thankless job and it is so critical. That’s how great both Colleen and Jess have been. Both of them are absolute pros. I’ve only had two (DOVOs) and both have been rock stars.”


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