The Wisconsin volleyball team had an exceptional and unexpected season. With a new coach, a freshman setter and six preseason injuries, the expectations were not that of 28 wins and a place in the National Championship game.
This season, sports fans fell in love with the Badgers and saw what it truly meant to be a team.
Replacing 13-year head coach Pete Waite after his resignation, first-year head coach Kelly Sheffield came to UW from the University of Dayton, making him the 10th coach in Wisconsin volleyball history. With many honors to his name, he eagerly anticipated his time at a Big Ten school.
“The goal is to compete for Big Ten championships — as it should be at Wisconsin,” Sheffield remarked at the start of the season.
Throughout the season, Sheffield emphasized getting better and better each match, and when that happens, “anything is possible.”
Along with the introduction of Sheffield, freshman Lauren Carlini — the top-ranked recruit in the country — stepped foot into the Wisconsin Field House as the starting setter for the Badgers. Wisconsin finished no better than seventh place in the Big Ten since 2007; Carlini’s commitment to UW could not have come at a better time. Her arrival brought a glimmer of hope for a return to the top of the conference.
The 2013 season started strong, with 6 straight wins for the Badgers and their strengths continued accumulating with upsets left and right. The Badgers took down then-No. 5 Michigan State and No. 7 Minnesota, making it the first time in program history that the then 16th-ranked Badgers defeated back-to-back top 10 ranked opponents.
“It was really exciting,” Sheffield said. “When you have everybody pulling in the same direction. That’s the fun part of coaching.”
This was a season of firsts for many of the players, as this was the first NCAA tournament for this group of Badgers, excluding junior Taylor Morey who competed in the tournament while at Notre Dame. Prior to the tournament, many doubted the opportunity for the Badgers’ success. The players used it as fuel to catapult themselves deep into the tournament.
“This is a whole new experience,” Carlini said. “Let’s prove everyone wrong.”
For the first time since 2007, the Wisconsin volleyball team was chosen to compete in the NCAA tournament. They were picked as the No. 12 seed and hosted both the first and second round matches. The Badgers got one last opportunity to play in front of their home fans, which proved to be more and more loyal as the season progressed.
“I think our team inspired a bunch of people,” Sheffield said. “You don’t have to be a volleyball fan. If you’re a fan of sports, I think you really learned to admire what this team did this year. We hope we made the students proud.”
Wisconsin finished out the season ranking fifth in home attendance, making it the 14th-straight season the team ended the year in the top five for national attendance. The Badgers averaged 3,521 fans per match.
Coasting through the first two rounds of the tournament, UW took down in-state rival Milwaukee and California in a pair of three-set sweeps advancing them to the Sweet 16.
As they took on Florida State, the Badgers were the only seeded team left in their region. After taking down the Seminoles, Wisconsin would not be stopped, taking down the top-overall seed and defending national champion Texas in the national semifinals to open the door to the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2000.
The winning streak came to an end as the Badgers fell 3-1 to Penn State. Wisconsin finished out its season with a total of 28 victories, which are the most wins the program has seen since its first season with an NCAA finals appearance in 2000.
The end of the season is bittersweet, however, as the Badgers say farewell to one of their all-time greats, senior libero Annemarie Hickey. Hickey left the Field House a legend, topping off an already strong career with an exceptional senior year. She ranks third on the UW career record list with 1,681 digs and is one of the best defensive players to wear the Wisconsin cardinal and white. Hickey set a precedent for the younger players by embodying the characteristics of a true leader and extraordinary athlete.
“Annemarie is probably one of the best leaders and captains I’ve had in my career,” Carlini said. “She doesn’t get down on herself when she makes mistakes, she’s always looking out for the best of the team and she’s always looking for ways to help other people.”
Hickey wants to be remembered as she says her goodbyes and leaves a lasting legacy for the Wisconsin Badgers.
“I am going to be the best teammate I can be. You always want to be remembered somehow, and I’ve always been working hard to be that leader that everyone looks to, the person that keeps everyone calm but competitive and is bringing it all the time,” Hickey said. “That’s my gift to them.”
With the 2013 season at a close, there is only one question: what’s next?
“New year, new challenges,” Sheffield said with a laugh. “We’re hoping that we use this past season as a catapult into next year. We’re a team that’s got a shot to win it all, next week when we are all back on campus we are going to get back to work on making history even better.”