There could not have been a better time for the Wisconsin volleyball team to snatch the best young talent in the country.
After five fruitless seasons saw them fail to reach the NCAA tournament, the Badgers will start their 2013 season with Gatorade National Player of the Year and incoming freshman Lauren Carlini on the roster.
Carlini earned the honors of top-ranked recruit in the country by PrepVolleyball.com and All-America first team by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
When Carlini committed to Wisconsin during her freshman year at West Aurora High School in Illinois, Badger volleyball was coming off one of the most successful decades in its history – the team had recently reached 12 straight NCAA appearances, including three Big Ten titles and a national championship appearance in 2000.
However, Wisconsin volleyball has endured more trying times in the past six years, finishing no better than seventh place in the Big Ten since 2007, including a tie for ninth in the conference last year.
Then came Carlini, and with her, the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation for the 2013 season. Now, a Wisconsin team that one year ago struggled to finish halfway up the Big Ten standings that includes some of the best teams in the country, may just have a glimmer of hope for a future return to greatness.
While Carlini acknowledged the high expectations of herself to help the team, she is trying to ignore outside opinions of her potential.
“I try not to put any extra pressure on myself,” Carlini said. “People are going to have their judgments and opinions, but I just want to play and do the best I can for my team.”
Not only has Wisconsin struggled in recent years, but as the Badgers have slid, the Big Ten has grown to be a volleyball powerhouse with seven of the 12 league squads ranked in the preseason coach’s poll.
The decline of Wisconsin and rise of the Big Ten has proven Carlini’s total loyalty and confidence in the winning tradition in Wisconsin volleyball, a key factor in her decision to play in cardinal and white she said.
Carlini said she was somewhat interested in schools like Michigan and UCLA, but Wisconsin was always her top choice of colleges and the only school that she visited.
Carlini even decided to play for Wisconsin after she learned that she would be playing under new head coach Kelly Sheffield and not former head coach Pete Waite, who recruited her.
“Yes, I was a little shaky there for a little while, but once I got to know Coach Sheffield and the rest of his coaching staff, it was a perfect fit,” Carlini said.
Sheffield said while Carlini still has a lot to learn about collegiate volleyball, her drive to win has been a key strength and infectious among her teammates.
“I think she’s a complete player coming out of high school,” Sheffield said. “I think she’s a winner. I think she has this mentality about her [in which] losing never enters the equation with her.”
Carlini said her teammates have embraced her and that she has felt comfortable transitioning to the UW program.
“It was pretty easy contributing to the team and getting used to everyone and kind of how they work on and off the court,” Carlini said. “It’s been a really easy transition so far.”
Carlini has been limited in practice recently after being plagued by a left leg injury, but Sheffield said she has stayed active in learning the game plan of the team.
“She’s doing a really good job of connecting with her teammates and then just staying mindful of trying to figure out how we want to do things offensively,” Sheffield said. “She’s really been engaged.”
During her senior year of high school, the 6-foot 2-inch Carlini accumulated 333 kills, 303 assists, 156 digs, 92 aces and 50 blocks in 38 games with a .462 hitting percentage – numbers convincing enough for Sheffield to put the freshman into the starting lineup as the setter, the position held by junior Courtney Thomas the past two seasons. Thomas will be transitioned to her high school position of outside hitter, a change she said she is ready for and willing to make for the success of the team.
Carlini said she didn’t always excel in volleyball with ease, and admitted she was an average player in middle school. She then grew four inches by the start of high school, Carlini said. Her significant growth spurt and an added sense of mental toughness and team-first mindset helped her become a dominant player, and gave her the opportunity to pursue her dream of playing Wisconsin volleyball.
“Something just ticked [in middle school] and I knew ‘this is it, I can actually do something with it,’” Carlini said.
Carlini said she did not have a great sense of mental
toughness in her earlier days of volleyball, which is something she says held her back from growing as a player. But she was able to improve her mental
strength over time, which is something that Wisconsin as a team can learn from
in order to succeed with a first-year head coach and a challenging schedule.
“My mentally when I was younger wasn’t the greatest,”
Carlini said. “But once I realized you have to be a good teammate and there’s a
lot more that goes into [volleyball], that’s when I realized ‘this is real.’”