Sheffield guides UW to the Final Four

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Kelly Sheffield wasn’t trying to impress his audience with brash proclamations.

Wisconsin’s first-year coach wasn’t trying to send a message to the rest of the field at the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four.

Rather, Sheffield was responding candidly when talking about the challenge awaiting 12th-seeded UW (27-9) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at KeyArena in Seattle.

No. 1 Texas (27-2) is the defending champion and has won 23 consecutive matches. In the Elite Eight, the Longhorns dispatched a Nebraska team that defeated UW twice during Big Ten play.

“We’ve got the defending champs up first,” said Sheffield, who came to UW after guiding Dayton to five NCAA berths in his five seasons as head coach. “Perfect, you know. It’s what we want.

“I can promise you this: We’re not going out there to just go check out the fish markets. Our team, they’re going to go hard and lay it all out there and we’re going out there to try to win a national championship like the other three teams.”

Second-seeded Penn State (32-2), which won four consecutive NCAA titles (2007-’10) and this season won the Big Ten title for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons, faces third-seeded Washington (30-2) in the second semifinal Thursday. The winners meet at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

UW is the third 12th-seeded team to reach the national semifinals in the last five seasons.

“We’re definitely a team that deserves to be here with the level of play we’ve been playing at,” senior libero Annemarie Hickey said.

Yet UW wasn’t expected to reach the Final Four for the second time in program history. The first appearance came in 2000 under Pete Waite.

With Sheffield taking over a program that hadn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and hadn’t finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten in Waite’s last six seasons, the Badgers were viewed as a reclamation project.

They weren’t picked to finish in the top six of the league and no UW player garnered preseason all-league honors.

“People were always doubting us,” junior outside-hitter Ellen Chapman said. “People never stopped doubting us in the media and in the rankings.

“We have a chip on our shoulder. We don’t want our previous years to define who we are this year. We are a new team.”

Setter Lauren Carlini, the 2012 Gatorade national player of the year as a senior at West Aurora High School in Illinois, is one of two freshmen starters and the jewel of the freshman class.

She was Big Ten freshman of the year, the Champaign Regional MVP and has a team-leading 21 double-doubles (assists/digs).

Carlini had already signed her letter of intent when UW officials announced in November 2012 Waite was stepping down after 14 seasons. Several coaches from marquee programs tried recruiting her after Waite’s departure.

“I never had hesitation,” she said. “I knew where I wanted to go at a young age. I had a path and I committed to it and I stood by my word.”

Chapman, who averaged 2.83 kills per set as a freshman and 2.86 as a sophomore, is improved this season. She leads UW in kills per set at 3.55 overall, but her number in the NCAA tournament is 4.64.

When Sheffield took over the program, he challenged Chapman to elevate her play to an All-American level. He believes she has.

“She’s been great,” said Sheffield, who has credited Waite for recruiting a talented roster. “She’s been fearless. That’s probably not a word that you would have used to describe Ellen Chapman a couple months ago, is fearless, but that’s exactly what she’s been.

“She’s wanting the ball. She’s in a great place. She’s fun to watch right now.”

Sheffield acknowledged the same could be said for the team, which has overcome a ridiculous string of injuries. Eight players have missed at least three matches, and the injury bug extended to a team manager and a member of the UW athletic communications staff.

“This last month or so, we’re a team that just keeps getting better and better,” he said. “I’ve said for a while we haven’t played our best volleyball and I still believe that. Confidence means an awful lot in athletics and I think we’ve got a team that believes they can take down anybody in the country.”

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