Greg Anderson / UW Athletic Communications
It was the unmistakable scream of a distraught child,with the drama playing out just inside gate C of the UW Field House.As the mom led her weeping child away, she offered up a sigh andan explanation for the meltdown: “The volleyball match is sold out.”
These days, that’s just an average night when the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team is in town. The Badgers aren’t on a mission to break hearts — unless those hearts reside in places like Texas, Hawaii, Nebraska or Minnesota — but disappointed would-be ticket-holders are collateral damage to a program that has emerged as one of the best in the country.
On Oct. 11, for the first time in school history, the volleyball team earned the No. 1 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, but a loss to Minnesota quickly bounced them from that perch.
That hasn’t hurt their popularity, however. The Badgers, with an 18-3 record as of press time (10-2 and in second place in the Big Ten) and a No. 3 ranking (behind Nebraska and Minnesota in the latest poll released Oct. 31), have sold out seven of nine home matches this season. Their recent matches against Penn State and Rutgers, and the upcoming Nov. 5 match against Purdue, sold out weeks in advance.
Volleyball success isn’t new for the Badgers, who have been to two Final Four tournaments, have had just one losing season since 1987 and twice have been the national runner-up. They caught people by surprise with a second-place national finish in 2013, but this year fans knew from the get-go that this season would be one to see.
“There really is something special this year, there’s just something you see when you watch them play,” says Teri Barr, co-host of the Wisconsin Women’s Sports Hour on WIBA-AM on Tuesday nights. “We’ve asked players and coaches this, too, and we all seem to think it’s because of the way they’ve built to this.”
Even the players notice the buzz. “I was out to get a coffee at 5 o’clock and people were already lined up for a 7:30 match,” says Haleigh Nelson, a senior middle blocker for the Badgers, of the Oct. 8 match against Illinois. “I wasn’t even there yet but the fans were. That’s dedication.”
At a time of the year when football usually leaves other sports in its dust, the Badgers volleyball team has fashioned what is becoming a signature sport for women’s athletics at UW-Madison. It’s volleyball that has fans lined up along Monroe Street and Breese Terrace waiting to get in the door and has area businesses swamped before matches. And it’s volleyball that has energized the UW Field House and given new life to the venerable facility.
“I think it’s electric,” athletic director Barry Alvarez says of the atmosphere at the Badgers’ home matches. “I just spoke at a couple functions and I told everyone there, ‘If you want to get your money’s worth and be entertained, go to volleyball. You’ll see some of the best athletes you’ve ever seen, it’s exciting, the players are engaged with the fans, and the fans are engaged with the players.’”
David Stluka / UW Athletic Communications
Setter Lauren Carlini has become the rock star of the team.
The foundation for the current success of the volleyball team can be traced to a moment eight years ago. That’s when senior all-American Lauren Carlini, then just a high school freshman, announced she would play college volleyball at UW-Madison. Rules kept her from signing a letter of intent until her senior year, but the setter from Aurora, Illinois, always knew where she wanted to play.
“I started coming to Wisconsin in middle school,” says Carlini, who began playing volleyball at 5 years of age when she tagged along with her mother, a former college player at Appalachian State, who competed in a rec league. “We went to camps here, got to know the coaching staff, and I just fell in love with the place.”
Getting a star setter isn’t unlike a football team getting the star quarterback or a basketball team getting a star point guard — it’s the player who will drive and direct everything, and the Badgers got a good one.
Carlini already had an international career behind her when she came to Wisconsin. She had been a member of the USA Youth National Team in 2010 and 2011, competing in the 2011 Girls’ Youth World Championship in Turkey.
Her impact was immediate at Wisconsin. She was in the starting lineup as a freshman and helped lead the Badgers to the 2013 national championship game, where they lost to Penn State. After her sophomore season, she trained with the U.S. national team and last summer was on the U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the Pan American Cup.
The two-time first-team all-American will leave Wisconsin as one of the most decorated athletes in school history, and could once again, in 2020, wear the red, white and blue for the U.S. in the Summer Olympics.
“She is the face of volleyball right now,” says Liz Tortorello-Nelson, an all-Big Ten setter for the Badgers in 1990 who now calls volleyball matches for the Big Ten Network. “You wonder why Wisconsin volleyball has been so great in the last four years? Well, Lauren is a part of that. Any coach in the country would love to have somebody like Lauren that they can trust to make her hitters look better.”
Carlini has a strong supporting cast that includes Haleigh Nelson (no relation to Tortorello-Nelson), an all-conference player and second-team all-American, and Molly Haggerty, a highly regarded freshman who has made an immediate impact. But it’s Carlini who has become the rock star of the team.
“At the mall I’ll always, without fail, get asked for two or three pictures,” Carlini says of young girls who often recognize her. “Actually, what I usually hear is, ‘My mom loves you!’”
David Stluka / UW Athletic Communications
Coach Kelly Sheffield revived the volleyball program.
For all that Carlini has brought to the program, it very easily could never have happened. She was recruited by Pete Waite, the Monona native who had led the program since 2000. But in November 2012, 11 days after Carlini signed her letter to commit to Wisconsin, Waite resigned under fire after five seasons with a losing Big Ten record. (Waite stayed in Madison and now sells real estate and is also part of the Badgers radio broadcast team.)
Two months later, Kelly Sheffield came to Wisconsin from Dayton. Right away, he called Carlini.
“You know there was anxiety in that house because of the number of people that were trying to get ahold of her,” Sheffield says. “I called her to tell her that this is who I am and this is how I see things. And her message was, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m all the way in; go get some help and let’s do this.’ That was about it. She’s very loyal, very driven and very selfless. That’s a pretty good combination.”
Sheffield didn’t have to start from scratch. He just had to revive the program. The winning began after Steve Lowe became coach in 1986, and he led the Badgers to their first Big Ten championship and NCAA tournament appearance. In 1991, just weeks before the season was to begin, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a month later at age 35.
Lowe taught the Badgers to win, and they’ve done so pretty consistently ever since. John Cook, the team’s next coach, built upon the success before leaving for Nebraska, the defending national champion. Waite’s 14 seasons included a national runner-up finish in 2001. But the Badgers struggled in his final five seasons.
Still, says Tortorello-Nelson, who played for Lowe, “I never felt like they were down. There was never a sense of doom and gloom for the program; I never felt that.”
The game itself has changed since Tortorello-Nelson played. There is a new position (the libero, the defensive specialist who wears the different-colored shirt), new rules and a new rally scoring system that doesn’t require a serve to score a point — all with the goal of making the game faster, more powerful, more TV-friendly and more popular. If fans in the stands haven’t seen a volleyball match for a while — and many haven’t — they might be surprised to learn it takes 25 points, not 15, to win a game and that a game is now called a set. (A match is the best three sets out of five. If a fifth set is required, it only goes to 15.)
It’s also a sport that is, at the NCAA and high school level, a woman’s domain. There are 336 Division I schools that play women’s volleyball; in the men’s game, there are so few that Division I and Division II combine and there are still only 28 teams. Even without a straight-up comparison to the men, women’s volleyball has the high-flying power that people equate with men’s sports. Just ask the many fans who have to protect their faces or their popcorn as the balls fly into the Field House bleachers.
“People often will say, ‘I don’t like watching women’s basketball, I only watch men’s basketball,’” Tortorello-Nelson says. “But people will get hooked if they watch women’s volleyball. It’s so fast-paced. The physicality of it is incredible — the players are so much bigger and stronger and faster than they ever were.”
The popularity has trickled down to the high school level. Two years ago, for the first time, more high school girls participated nationally in volleyball than in basketball. In Wisconsin, the two sports have had generally equal participation numbers the past 20 years; last year 471 schools competed in girls’ volleyball and 466 in girls’ basketball.
Just 59 boys’ teams played volleyball in Wisconsin this fall, but local schools were well represented, with four Madison public high schools and Middleton fielding teams.
The Badgers’ recent run is catching even longtime fans, like Richard Sheard of Columbus, by surprise. Sheard, who has been coming to games since the 1980s, learned a couple of years ago it was now necessary to plan ahead when he went to see UW face off against Penn State at the Field House.
“I dropped my brother off to get tickets and I parked about a mile away and walked all the way down here, only to find out we didn’t get tickets,” says Sheard, who was standing — this time with a ticket — in line an hour before the Oct. 8 match against Illinois. “So we had to walk all the way back to the car, [and we] went home and watched it on TV.”
A good team isn’t the only thing driving ticket sales: The price is right. Reserved season tickets that cost $65 for 12 matches sold out by mid-July. General admission season tickets, which cost $50, sold out later in the summer. Even for sellouts, the lines snake down the street before the doors open an hour before match time because fans with general admission tickets want to snag good seats. About half the seats in the Field House are sold as season tickets.
Despite the sellouts, volleyball isn’t a revenue-generating sport at Wisconsin. Only two programs — perennial powers and attendance leaders Nebraska and Hawaii — make money for their schools. They also have higher-priced tickets and larger facilities.
But Alvarez is not concerned. “I don’t think it’s important for it to be a money-maker,” he says. “I think it’s more important for it to be available and affordable for families. At some point we may have to adjust that, but I don’t see that in the near future.”
When it comes to sellouts, the question inevitably turns to the empty red seats that line the top of the Field House. Right now, a sellout crowd at the more intimate lower-level Field House is 6,012. Three thousand more seats are unavailable, deemed not up to code in the 1930 building that has only been used for volleyball and wrestling since Badgers basketball and the state high school tournaments headed to the Kohl Center in 1998.
There is no plan yet in place to fix the upper deck, says Jason King, UW senior associate director for capital projects. The priority at the facility was a new $1.7 million locker room, training room and study space project that was funded with private money and completed in September. Fixing the upper deck would cost about $500,000, King says.
“At some point we’ll look to do something with the upper deck but it hasn’t been our No. 1 priority,” he says, adding that it’s a topic that will be evaluated at budget time.
Alvarez says it also depends on the continued demand for tickets: “If we’re turning people away every game, then we’d consider it.”
Greg Anderson / UW Athletic Communications
Kelli Bates goes up for a spike against OSU on September 23.
These are good times for female athletes at Wisconsin.
Hockey goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens is breaking school and NCAA records and was last season’s national player of the year for a team that has been the standard-bearer for success in women’s sports at the university. This week, teammate Annie Pankowski is part of the U.S. national team competing at the Four Nations Cup in Finland. The No. 1-ranked Badgers have won four national titles (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011).
The Badgers are the national leader in attendance this season and regularly sell out the 2,273-seat LaBahn Arena. A fifth “Fill the Bowl” event at the Kohl Center on Jan. 14 will seek to top the NCAA single-game attendance record for women’s hockey of 13,573 that was set the last time the Badgers hosted the event in 2014.
Rose Lavelle of the women’s soccer team has trained with the U.S. national team and is on the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given to the top collegiate soccer player in the nation.
In addition, Kelsey Card finished her time as a member of the Badgers track and field team and competed in the discus at the Rio Olympics in August, finishing 25th. And the women’s swim team has gained an Olympic gold medalist: Cierra Runge, who was part of the winning 4x800 freestyle relay team in Rio and transferred to Wisconsin from the University of California-Berkeley.
Part of this overall success stems from opportunities available to female athletes at a young age in a variety of sports since the Title IX era of the 1970s. It is also due to efforts to spread the wealth from the success of the football program, Alvarez says.
“We want to run a program the right way, and we want to be competitive,” Alvarez says. “Football is the major money generator for the department, and that’s allowed us to keep our 23 sports and keep their budgets at a level where they compete.”
The women’s program that has most struggled to find success has been the highest-profile one — basketball, which has a new coach in Jonathan Tsipis this season. Last March, Bobbie Kelsey was fired after five losing seasons and replaced by Tsipis, a coach who took George Washington University to two NCAA tournaments after serving as associate head coach for perennial women’s power Notre Dame.
Expectations are high for Tsipis, too.
“I don’t tell [coaches] how many championships they need to win,” Alvarez says, “but that I expect them to be competitive because I’ll give them the resources to run their program at a high level.”
The long-term future for volleyball looks good, too. The Badgers already have a player, Sydney Hilley from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, lined up to succeed Carlini as setter and in fact have the position covered until 2023.
Hilley will graduate from high school early to enroll at Wisconsin for the spring semester to work with Carlini before Carlini leaves for California to train with the U.S. team and then head abroad for a pro career. (Two other recruits, Dana Rettke of Riverside, Illinois, and Mariah Whalen of Wausau Newman, are also graduating early to enroll at UW in January.) There’s even a plan for Hilley’s replacement, as high school freshman M.E. Hammill of Greenwood, Indiana, has announced that she’ll play for Wisconsin.
The Badgers have four more home matches this season — Nov. 5 against Purdue, Nov. 18 against Michigan, Nov. 19 against Michigan State and Nov. 23 against Iowa. Then it’s NCAA tournament time, with the possibility of the Badgers hosting the first and second rounds and a goal of the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, Dec. 15-17.
These home matches at the Field House won’t be an easy ticket to get, and it’s not as fun standing outside for an hour or two now as it was in September. But as the season has gone on, the lines and the sellouts have become business as usual.
“We expect it now,” Sheffield says. “[The fans] are into it; they show up and they show up early. It’s why it’s one of the best places to play in college volleyball.”