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Dennis Punzel | The Wisconsin State Journal | August 25, 2016

Wisconsin's Carlini preps for final shot at NCAA title

  Carlini is a three-time AVCA All-American and a first-team selection the past two seasons.

Lauren Carlini can hear the clock ticking, but she's doing her best to tune it out.

Carlini, who came to the University of Wisconsin volleyball program with the audacious goal of leading the Badgers to a national championship, enters her senior year with that goal still not realized.

The big difference is that what once seemed overly ambitious now is entirely plausible.

During her first three seasons the Badgers have gone from a team that had not made the NCAA tournament field for five seasons to a perennial title contender.

After three close calls and heartbreaking finishes, Carlini is embarking on her last chance as the No. 4 Badgers open the season Friday against No. 6 Hawaii at the Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu.

"It's weird to think that it's already here and there's just one chance left at it," Carlini said. "I'm trying hard not to think about that and I'm trying hard not to think that that's the end goal, the be-all, end-all. Because it's not."

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Indeed, Carlini's first three seasons at UW have convinced her that the program is destined to win its first national title at some point. And while she aspires to experience that firsthand, it will be no less fulfilling if it comes at some point down the line.

"Whether we win a national championship or not this year I know it's not going to make or break this program," she said. "I know at some point we will win a national championship as a program and everyone is going to be just as excited as the people on that team. We've all been on that journey and we've all been a part of this program and we've helped build that. It will be a very connecting time for everyone."

Carlini, a three-time AVCA All-American and a first-team selection the past two seasons, is one of four seniors who have been a part of the program's revival under coach Kelly Sheffield.

The class includes middle blockers Haleigh Nelson and Tori Blake and outside hitter Romana Kriskova. Nelson, a second-team All-American last year, and Blake have been around from the start, while Kriskova joined the program in 2014 as a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth.

"It's our last chance but I wouldn't say I'm any more motivated than any other year," Nelson said. "I've felt the same every year. I want it more than I've wanted anything in my entire life. Our whole team feels that way.

"With our group of seniors, it's always been the goal. This season is special. I don't want at the end of the year to feel like I didn't put everything I have on the table."

Carlini, Nelson and Blake are the last players remaining from the 2013 team that made an improbable run to the NCAA championship match, shocking No. 1 Texas in the semifinals before losing in four sets to No. 2 Penn State in the title match.

The Badgers won their first Big Ten Conference title since 2001 the following year, only to see their season ended again by Penn State in the Elite Eight when Carlini suffered a serious ankle injury in the first set.

After a bumpy start last year incorporating eight new players into the program, the Badgers finished on a roll only to be knocked off in five sets by Florida in the Sweet 16.

Sheffield has an experienced lineup this season, led by Carlini at setter, juniors Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis on the left side, Nelson and sophomore Tionna Williams at middle and Kriskova or freshman Molly Haggerty on the right side. The only vacancy is at libero, where sophomore Amber MacDonald and freshmen M.E. Dodge and Sarah Dodd are competing to succeed Taylor Morey.

Sheffield said this year's team has more offensive firepower up front and better defense in the back row than his first three UW squads.

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But he also knows there will be no shortage of challenges ahead, as evidenced by the fact that while the Badgers are ranked No. 4 nationally they are just No. 3 in the Big Ten behind defending national champion Nebraska and reigning Big Ten champ Minnesota.

If her first three years have taught Carlini anything it is that nothing is guaranteed and it's best to stay focused on the now.

"We don't talk about goals, really," she said. "We just worry about the process and what's going on during the season. We're not focusing so hard on 'we have to win a national championship' or 'we have to win the Big Ten championship.' If we do things the right way and go about the process the right way, those things will come."

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