Winter and the winter sports season are slowly drawing to a close here at Wisconsin, and although brighter days and greener pastures are fast-approaching with spring on the horizon, many of the sports teams are about to head into a hibernation of sorts, at least competition-wise. However, the volleyball team is not among those with a break, and it is actually one of the few teams with a fall season and a spring season — albeit a shorter one for the latter.
Spring football practice started Saturday and so began the Andersen Era of Wisconsin football, but only five days earlier and a few hundred feet away at the Field House, the Sheffield Era of Wisconsin volleyball also debuted with the first practice under new head coach Kelly Sheffield.
But for many of the players including sophomore Courtney Thomas, sophomore Ellen Chapman and junior Annemarie Hickey, it wasn’t their first time playing since the fall season culminated at the end of November. While all the players spent a few hours a week at the gym in the offseason, a little more than a week before practice began, the trio of players in Thomas, Chapman and Hickey had a very special opportunity to showcase their skills.
Beginning Feb. 22, the three players traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo. for the three-day U.S. National A2 team tryouts, a team that features the premier talent in the college level.
As for how the opportunity came about for the three players, it was not a roundabout process but instead a very direct proposal as Hickey explained.
“Coach just called me up one day and was like, ‘Hey do you want to go to the USA tryout?’ Obviously, I wasn’t going to turn that down. It’s a great experience, a great opportunity. You get to play with some of the best people in the world for volleyball,” Hickey said.
For the first time for all three players, it was a chance to play with the best players that college volleyball has to offer instead of against them. And although it was a great opportunity to simply play alongside the best in the business, there was more to the experience than just that, which Sheffield found out his players had done in the report from the tryouts.
“The reports that I got back were that they had really good tryouts,” Sheffield said. “It’s one thing to tryout, but it’s another thing when you’re playing against top notch competition of being able to bring it. It sounds like our players were able to bring it, so we’ve got talent here.”
It was supposed to be a three-day tryout and learning opportunity for Chapman, Hickey and Thomas, but it blossomed into more than that thanks to some bad weather. The flight for Madison scheduled for Sunday night was cancelled due to a snowstorm, which allowed the three Badgers an opportunity to bond with their new assistant coach Brittany Dildine for the first time since she joined Sheffield at Wisconsin. The players were able to realize not only who Dildine was as a coach, but also as a person, yielding a fun, positive experience for all four, and forging their new relationships in both the coaching and personal realms.
“Even from when she first picked us up from the airport when we first got to Colorado Springs, I never really knew her before that, so it was really neat getting to know her and seeing that’s she not just a coach to us. She is like a friend,” Chapman said.
The individual experiences in Colorado Springs are symbolic as they transition into what the spring season for volleyball is all about. Much shorter than the fall season with the biggest difference being no championships on the line, the Badgers spring schedule — consisting of three games and a tournament this year — is geared toward the improvement of the individual rather than the team, which Sheffield discussed after the first practice.
“I’ve always thought the spring was about the individual and the fall was about the team. This is kind of different when you’re a new coach coming in because you’re trying to learn about each of them individually but you’re trying to put some of those pieces together, as well. The spring, there’s not that worry about the next match. You can totally put all your energies on just getting better,” Sheffield said.
Not only does the spring season allow for the players to concentrate on their own development, it also allows for a new coach in Sheffield and his coaching staff to get to know and understand his players whom he only recently met.
“Right now it’s just about learning each other. I’ve got to learn who they are and what they’re capable of, and they’ve got to learn me and what our expectations are and how we run things,” Sheffield said. “We try to have a gym where there’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of competing going on and just start building from there. This is day one. Rome wasn’t built in day.”
Regardless of how Wisconsin fares this upcoming spring season, the new life and foundations that are a part of spring ball will be the most important in paving the road to success come fall and in the seasons to come in the Sheffield Era.