SEATTLE -- It was a steamy August morning in Madison, Wis. Coach Kelly Sheffield stood before his new team.
“We gave them a championship manual laying out everything that we felt we needed to do. The goal we started talking about on day one is: let's dream big.”If Sheffield’s vision was reaching the national championship match in his very first season, then it proved to be a dream come true. Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Penn State face off Saturday night in Seattle with the Division I title on the line. But Sheffield’s initial dream could have been a nightmare.
Last November, legendary Badger coach Pete Waite resigned after 14 seasons. Sheffield was hired at the end of the year after five successful seasons at Dayton. His first dose of good news was that the nation’s top recruit, setter Lauren Carlini, had decided to honor the commitment she had made years earlier to attend Wisconsin. With that, Sheffield and his staff got to work.
“You don't just wake up and you're competing for a national championship,” Sheffield said. “You've got to lay the groundwork. You've got to talk about it. You talk about it enough, you dream about it enough and all of a sudden it doesn't seem so far-fetched. And maybe you start believing.”
Sheffield had to sustain that belief through a sometimes-rocky season in the always-tough Big Ten. During two separate stretches, the Badgers lost 3 of 4 matches, including a crucial match against Purdue.
“The Purdue match when we lost in five at their place was a heartbreaker,” outside hitter Ellen Chapman said. “It was back and forth, and every single game was defined by two or three points. That was just a hard match to lose.”
“When it got right down to it,” Sheffield says of the Purdue game, “we weren't playing great volleyball when the match was on the line.”
Two of the Badgers’ nine losses this season were 3-0 sweeps at the hands of Penn State, a team that thoroughly dominated Pac-12 champion Washington in Thursday’s second semifinal. If Wisconsin’s storyline is its new coach, Penn State’s the exact opposite: coach Russ Rose has been at the school for 34 seasons. His teams have won five national titles, including four in a row from 2007-10. That success presents a different kind of challenge.
“If you don’t win the championship and win it big,” Rose said, “you really let everybody down. Not many collegiate programs have to deal with those sorts of expectations.”
Penn State has done little to dispel those expectations in this year’s tournament. The team is playing with confidence and joy, led by setter Micha Hancock and four-time AVCA All-American Deja McClendon. Hancock broke out of a serving slump to lead two crucial 8-0 and 7-0 scoring runs against Washington, while McClendon seemed to dig every ball hit her way.
“They beat us in every phase,” Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. “I gotta give Russ a lot of credit because they were very, very consistent. If they play like that [against Wisconsin,] they're going to win this thing.”
Illinois coach Kevin Hambly also thinks Penn State has the advantage. His was the only team to play all four of this year’s semifinalists, and says Rose excels at preparing his team for the limelight. “Russ has done it more than anyone,” Hambly said. “He just knows how to get his team ready and keep ‘em loose.”
Part of Rose’s preparation will have to include passing against Wisconsin’s aggressive and varied serve, something Texas could not do consistently in its 3-1 semifinal loss to the Badgers. “Wisconsin served extremely tough and got us out of system,” says Texas coach Jerritt Elliott. “We didn't find a way. Wisconsin did. And they played great.”
If Sheffield was dreaming big from the very start, his team took a little longer to fully buy in. “We never expected that we were going to get this far,” Badger outside hitter Deme Morales said. “But we all just gathered together and we made a goal and we just fought back. Everyone is just so proud of each other and we know we're one of the tightest teams out there.”
“These guys probably believe they can conquer the world,” Sheffield said, “and they should. When you battle through adversity together, that confidence becomes real and it becomes powerful and strong, and they've got it right now.”
“This team deserves to be here.”