On some teams, the freshman class may be subjected to the role of benchwarmer, but the Wisconsin volleyball freshman class is in the middle of all of the action.
The No. 4 ranked recruiting class in the country is making a substantial impact on the team, with two of the four freshmen, setter Lauren Carlini and middle blocker Haleigh Nelson, embracing starting positions in the lineup.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield said he has no problem inserting two freshmen as starters right away. He said he doesn’t believe in giving older players the benefit of experience — he has even started freshmen in front of three-year starters in past years.
“I don’t care how old somebody is,” Sheffield said. “People that are getting it done are going to be the ones playing.”
As 2012 National Gatorade Player of Year, Carlini was immediately placed as the starting setter, where she ranks fifth in the Big Ten and second among freshmen in assists with 10.30 per game. Carlini said even as a freshman, she likes being a leader on the team, and as the starting setter, she is required to be one of the team’s vocal leaders.
“The setter has to be quarterback on the court,” Carlini said. “Just being a freshman in that role, you have to play like an older player — you can’t play like a freshman or someone who’s new and timid. You have to take that role and embrace it.”
Sheffield said Carlini has shown her willingness to improve every day with tremendous poise, especially from a freshmen.
“She has a lot of confidence in herself,” Sheffield said. “If she wasn’t ready, we already had one of the best setters in the country on our roster anyway [in Courtney Thomas]. It’s worked out really well — she’s come in here and grabbed the reigns like we expected her to.”
Nelson didn’t know what her role on the team would be heading into the season, but she said she kept an open mind about whatever the team needed from her. She said she got the call to start from Sheffield before the Pepperdine Invitational, and was taken by surprise.
“In that moment, I didn’t really know what to think,” Nelson said. “I was obviously really excited. I was pretty amped up.”
Nelson has stepped up as one of Wisconsin’s chief defensive players leading the team with 1.04 blocks per game as well as ranking first among Big Ten rookies in hitting percentage at a 0.326 clip.
The North Carolina-native was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week last month when she combined for 17 kills and 13 blocks against Purdue and Indiana.
While Nelson has had some big games, Kelly said she has the tendency to disappear during stretches. Nelson said that especially for her blocking, she is eager to improve her game.
“Really, all I’m thinking about is ‘I need to watch the film,’” Nelson said. “I just need to get better. I still have so far to go and so many more things that I need to practice.”
Both Nelson and Carlini said they’ve received plenty of help from some of the older players on the team. Carlini said her most important mentor has been junior outside hitter Courtney Thomas. Thomas handled the duties of setter her first two seasons with Wisconsin, and aided Carlini in how to tailor her passes to the different attackers on offense.
The freshman class has helped each other adjust to life as a Badger both on and off the court. Middle blocker Tori Blake began lifting with the team in the spring after graduating high school a semester early, and she was soon joined by Nelson and outside hitter Taylor Fricano for summer training.
Carlini said Nelson, Blake and Fricano were helpful in getting Carlini acclimated to campus when she arrived in Madison in August, helping her with the team’s schedule, how to get around on campus and how to work in Sheffield’s new system.
Nelson said the freshmen as a whole have a comfortable dynamic when they’re together. Nelson and Fricano have been roommates since June, and Nelson said all four of the freshmen enjoy spending time together away from volleyball.
“I’d say we’re all pretty different,” Nelson said. “Our personalities are all unique, but I think they blend well together. We all get along really well.”
As front-row players, Nelson, Blake and Fricano often work on similar skills during practice, including short-serve passing. Nelson said junior middle blocker Dominique Thompson has been a respected leader with the trio of freshman when helping them with technique.
Nelson said that the freshman have developed a bond because of the work they put in together during practice.
“When it’s all of us together, it’s kind of a cool dynamic,” Nelson said. “We’re all cheering each other on.”