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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | October 18, 2022

Dani Busboom Kelly is a leader, a mom and on track to be the 1st woman to coach a DI volleyball champion

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It had already been a busy day for the coach of the No. 2  volleyball team in the land. Up early to feed and play with her baby son, a quick workout, a stop at day care, and now time to prepare for the night’s match at her desk in Denny Crum’s old office.

There’s a lot to do when you’re chasing a national championship, and maybe even one day make history.

Louisville volleyball is on a roll. The Cardinals are 15-1 at this moment and have already beaten six ranked opponents, all this after the 32-1 dream season of 2021 when the only thing lacking was a proper happy ending. This is a program taking a seat at the A-list table and making itself at home. As for the coach, she’s won while pregnant and she’s won as a new mom and now it’d be nice to add a championship trophy to the story. Something no female has ever done as a Division I women’s volleyball head coach. Ever.

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Wouldn’t that be a good one to tell the six-month old son about one day?

“Sometimes it’s hard to believe,” Dani Busboom Kelly begins, “I ask myself and the other coaches, are we really that good? I think it just shows that we’ve recruited the right people, and more importantly that Louisville cares about volleyball.”

The guy who used to work in this office became a Louisville legend and won two national basketball championships with the men. Now a new frontier is being pursued from here, in another sport, by another coach, and another gender. Busboom Kelly understands about national titles. Back in Nebraska, she once was the farm girl who grew up between two small towns with no stoplights — “We did have a couple of stop signs” — and went to the big city — well, Lincoln —  to help the Cornhuskers win the national championship as a player, and later an assistant coach.

Nebraska Athletics Busboom Kelly helped her alma mater Nebraska win a title in 2006 Busboom Kelly helped her alma mater Nebraska win a national title in 2006

She understands about competition, too. In high school, when she wasn’t being all-stater in basketball, she was winning a state title in hurdles, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was being a hot recruit in the sport she was really good at, which was volleyball.

Since 2016, this bundle of accomplishment has made turning Louisville into an elite national power her mission as head coach. The formula seemed clear: Recruit relentlessly, work hard, schedule tough, and dream big.

“We worked really hard to put the pieces together and not just accumulate talent,” she is saying. “How do they fit with the way we coach and the way we play? We talk about (national championships) a lot but it’s always in a working way, like how can we accomplish this? Not just dream. We’re putting in the work and the thought process to actually do it, not just think about it.”

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Recruiting? The Cardinals go hither and yon. Busboom Kelly stresses drawing local talent and her top player – currently out with a knee injury – is Anna DeBeer, who played her high school volleyball seven miles from campus. But 10 states and two other nations are represented on the roster, too.

Scheduling? The docket this season has listed seven ranked opponents so far, including a trip to traditional power Stanford and just down the road to Kentucky, the 2020 national champion.  Last season the Cardinals beat three top-10 opponents in nine days. “When I decided to a do a four-year rotating schedule with Stanford, Nebraska and Kentucky, I thought, man, we’ll be lucky to win one out of eight games in the next four years,” she says. “And we’re 4-0 in the last two years.  But I knew we had to schedule tough to prove ourselves.”

Louisville Athletics Louisville defeated rival Kentucky earlier this season Louisville defeated rival Kentucky earlier this season

This season they went five sets to take a tense rivalry battle at Kentucky, and three days later won in four sets at Stanford, the fifth and sixth ranked opponents they had played in 18 days. The only stumble came against Ohio State.

Work hard? That they do, including the coach, and it wasn’t often easy last season when the future Gregory Boone Kelly was in the womb, nor this season now that she and husband Lane, a former Nebraska football player, have a son. Everyone calls him Boone. No, not after the famous Kentuckian Daniel.

“It’s been cool to share with our team and I think they think it’s cool to know that I have a kid. I just think it’s a good example to them,” she says. “You have to be very organized, and you have to give up some stuff in your personal life, which is fine.”  And there have been some odd moments, such as the practice last season when a pregnant Busboom Kelly was nailed by a smashed volleyball. “The whole team gasped,” she says.

Dream big? Louisville has long been very strong in volleyball but the Cardinals have reached a new level. The unbeaten regular season in 2021 led to clinching the program’s first-ever Final Four berth, winning the regional in Freedom Hall where Crum had many of his basketball glory days. “It was just really special to the program, to the city, to the athletic department to go there and play so well and have it be a sport that’s on the rise and a sport that’s trying to capture the attention of everyone in this city,” Busboom Kelly says.

Fans came up to her that day in tears. But she wasn’t. “I kind of blame this on pregnancy. I kept telling my team I’m a pretty big crier. Happy, sad, mad. And I could not cry. It was like the opposite effect of most pregnant people. I don’t know if that took away a little emotion from me personally.”

The long ride ended at the Final Four, in five sets against Wisconsin. It would have been so perfect to get to the championship game, where her alma mater would have been waiting. Instead, the Badgers beat the Cornhuskers to win the championship.

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“I still haven’t watched that game in the entirety,” she says of the loss. “I’ve watched bits and pieces and points, but I don’t think I’ll sit down and watch that whole game.  As any coach knows it’s so hard to get to those moments and then when you don’t take advantage it’s so heartbreaking. You just don’t know if you’ll ever be back.”

But getting back is precisely the point.

First, she felt that push from her administration. New contract, recommitted support. “It wasn’t like they were satisfied with one time. They want us to stay at the top. After last season, it was a pat on the back of course, but also an investment. Like, this is awesome, we can see what volleyball can be here, let’s do it.”

And now she has felt it from her team. “It carries a ton into this season, just knowing that we can do it, that we’re that close. I do think the returning players have a lot more confidence this year and I think they will be more confident in that moment. We pushed to the very end but we broke down and made some silly mistakes and I think that’s a sign of a little doubt creeping in at the very end. I do believe when we’re in that moment again we won’t flinch. It just takes one flinch in those big matches and you’re done. We’re not planning on flinching this year.”

Meanwhile, the coach is beginning to appreciate her own role in her sport. Here’s the thing about NCAA women’s volleyball history: All the national champions have gone to male coaches. All 41. And another item. Louisville has had a quality women’s sports program but never a team national champion in anything.

So there are barriers to break. Busboom Kelly does not take that possibility lightly. Indeed, it has grown in her consciousness, and one reason is the baby boy at daycare this very morning.

“I would have said before that I was not against all that female hype but I wasn’t nearly as appreciative of it,” she says. “But now that I have a son it does mean a lot more to me to be a female that’s making headway in our sport, to show other women they can do it and you can have a family and be successful as a coach and work in this athletics world. So that’s changed a little bit. This year I think about it a lot more.

“The volleyball piece isn’t even that big of a deal to me. It’s more athletic department wide. Women’s athletics at Louisville have been so good for so long it’s crazy that we haven’t had a (team) national champion.”

Seven hours later, the house is nearly full at L&N Federal Credit Union Arena. Virginia Tech is in town and as the match nears, the music blares out the bugle you hear at the track calling the horses to the post. Well, Churchill Downs is less than two miles away.

Busboom Kelly’s coaching style is unusual. She is the CEO directing things from her chair. Long-time assistant Dan Meske is the action figure, always up and standing and calling out instructions. The Cardinals zip through two sets, drop a third, then put away the Hokies in the fourth. For Louisville, it pushes the record to 16-1 and is ACC win No. 36 in a row, but the coach is not happy.

“I’d rank that pretty low. Probably our worst game of the game,” she says. “We’ve talked a lot about just not taking any opponent for granted, every point matters and that didn’t show tonight. Maybe it’s a wake-up call.

"I hate playing this way, especially at home. You just lose a little bit of that momentum (drawing the home folks) any time you don’t put on a great show.”

Senior Aiko Jones is one of Louisville’s veteran stars and understands where the Cardinals are, and where they want to go.  “We try not to think about the ranking, and to think about what everyone else is saying and to think about who’s undefeated,” she says. “We don’t even talk about that stuff in our gym because those are all distractions. We spend a lot of time focusing on us.”

Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images Aiko Jones and Amaya Tillman defend against Wisconsin's Grace Loberg. Aiko Jones and Amaya Tillman defend against Wisconsin's Grace Loberg in the 2021 semifinals.

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There is a still another month of regular season play, and then the NCAA Tournament. It’s hoped DeBeer is back. The lessons from 2021 should really be clicking in by then.

“We know we have been in tight moments, we have been in big moments we were able to pull out,” Jones says. “That has carried through with all our starters this year, just knowing what the big picture is, what the big goal is.”

The lights go out in the arena and Busboom Kelly heads off to see the family. Boone does not get to come on Friday night games. He’ll be here for Sunday's match with Wake Forest, though, as his mother pursues her life's work, and maybe history beyond.

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