The summer is blowing by and we are just four weeks away from the Tuesday of the first week of the 2018 Women’s NCAA Division I season (with matches starting later in that week). To countdown the final five weeks, we are previewing each of the top five teams in our Way-Too-Early 2018 VolleyMob Top 25 Power Rankings. To kick things off we talked with Heather Olmstead about #5 BYU last week. Today, we catch up with Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield:
Q: Last year you replaced a lot but still ended up in the Sweet 16. Did that late run where you won on the road in the second round and challenging Stanford give you a boost into this offseason?
A: You mention that we were young, and we were. There’s so much learning that was going on. I think we were 0-4 in fifth sets last year. In sets that were decided by two or three points we didn’t have a great record in that. I think so much of it was we had turnover from the year before and had a lot of young players that were learning to take big swings and step up in big moments. I think we got a little more comfortable with that as the season went on – it was a fantastic learning experience for these guys. What you wanna be doing is playing your best volleyball by the end of the year and we certainly did that which added to the enthusiasm of our returning players headed into the spring.
Q: You had seven freshmen and five sophomores in 2017. I can imagine that led to some frustrations at times but sometimes you hear about getting young teams that can be refreshing to teach for coaches. What was that experience like for you with such a young group?
A: You’re right; It was such a fun group to work with but I don’t know if I would necessarily call it refreshing – I enjoyed coaching the team before that as well. What you’re wanting is a group that is all the way in and playing for each other, playing hard and learning.
We went into last year thinking there was a pretty good chance we were going to redshirt Dana Rettke. Pretty early on everybody realized this is the player we are going to try to get the ball to as much as possible. That’s a pretty big mindset change that a player is going through as the season is going on: from ‘I’m just trying not to drown and find my way in here and hopefully I can help out a little bit’ to all of the sudden, ‘hey, everybody is looking at me to do something’. And I thought she did a fantastic job at that. And you’ve got Sydney Hilley coming in as a freshman, running our team, getting more comfortable with figuring out different players and taking on a bigger leadership role as the season went on. Those were two really young players that showed a lot of improvement as the season went through.
Grace Loberg was a player that didn’t play a whole lot for most of the year but just kept getting better as we were going through the season and got herself a chance in the NCAA Tournament and just really did a great job for us in those three matches.
Q: At what point did you realize how good Dana Rettke was going to be?
A: When we recruited her we thought this could be a player that’s awfully good. And then toward the end of her high school career we thought she could be special. We were just thinking the last few years of her career she could be really good. She graduated from high school a semester early, came in here and we were playing a few matches in the spring against NCAA Tournament teams – and some that were playing in the second weekend. She was just tearing it up, so we thought maybe we have to go to plan B here, which is not a bad plan B that the player may be ready sooner than we thought.
She’s only been playing the game four years. She’s really good right now but there’s just so much more where she can get better at. That’s kind of the exciting run she’s on right now, is that she can tell every week, every month that she’s better where she was previously. She went out to the Final Four and walking around getting her awards with people she’s previously looked up to elevated her confidence and certainly heightened it going into this year. There’s a work ethic that I’ve seen coming out of last season that has had a different level from last year that was already good.
Q: What is the progression like for a player like that who comes in and has such a big impact right away?
A: There’s so much. She wants to be a better blocker, clean up some of her movements and her reads, and her hand positioning. Attacking – being able to hit with a lot more range. It’s one thing when you have openings being able to put the ball to the floor – that was something she was doing a good portion of the year that when there was a seam in the block or just one-on-one hitting around it she was putting it to the floor or tipping.
What we were seeing toward the end of last year was two blockers going wherever she was going. Our choice was, typically, to set somebody else. So she’s been working on going high to the corners, being able to work around four hands that are putting up a good block, being a more consistent server and trying to get her in the back row and defend more; how do we set up a lineup and rotation where at some point in her career that she’s a six-rotation player. I think with her length and contact point she can be a really good back row attacker and she moves pretty well back there, so there’s a lot of things she’s working on.
Q: What made Sydney Hilley‘s approach so strong last season in taking over for Lauren Carlini and how can she be even better in 2018?
A: She wasn’t scared of it. That was something she mentally prepared for since she committed as a freshman is ‘I want to graduate from high school early and get in there and develop connections’. So she prepared herself really well with it.
I think she started taking on a bigger leadership role as the season was going on. Lauren had a lot of strong personalities around her when she came in so she was able to come in and set and not have to worry about taking a lot of leadership responsibilities. Sydney came in and was a strong presence for us in the practice gym right away – and we needed her to be. I think there’s a lot more comfort in that area for her going forward.
She will work as the day is long. She’s got an unbelievable work ethic. She studies hard to try and learn about what her teammates are wanting and how to communicate with them. I was excited to be able to coach Syd and she’s been fantastic to work with.
Q: What does Molly Haggerty add to your team now that she’s back in the fold off of injury?
A: A lot of power up in the net. A lot of ball control in the back row. She was still working on her strength coming through the spring – we really tried to take that slow with her. There was a lot of frustration on her part – she really wanted to play last year – and we came really close to putting her out there but it just wouldn’t have been the right decision for her long term. She’s wanting to have a long career in this sport and to risk that by putting her out there – even though she would have helped us not at 100 percent – would not have made sense.
We feel like she’s there. She’s so fired up, she’s so ready for this great season to get going. I don’t know if anybody’s been working harder than her during the summer to continue adding strength, getting her touch and being the player she wants to be.
As excited as I am about her we’ve got some other good lefts in Grace Loberg, Madison Duello and Mariah Whalen. They give us as much depth as we’ve ever had out there on the left pin, but I’m just excited for Molly to get in there and let it loose.
Q: Who are you looking at to fill the roles of Lauryn Gillis and Kelli Bates?
A: I think there will be a lot of balance on this roster. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do. You’ve got Tionna Williams who has been an All-American the first three years that she’s been here and been a steady player for us. Danielle Hart is another player I think is ready to find her way in the lineup.
If we can stay healthy I think this is as much depth as we’ve had. We’re still pretty young – we’ve got one senior on the roster and it’s a big sophomore and junior class – but if we’re healthy there’s going to be a lot of decisions that have got to be made.
Who steps up into those to fill Bates’ and Gillis’ role? I don’t know, I think it’s by committee. They certainly had an energy about them that was contagious in the gym every single day, but I think we return a lot of players that can bring that same toughness that a Bates brought or that positive energy that a Gillis brought that they learned from those two. I think we will have a few players who will be able to step into those roles, hopefully.
Q: What’s going to be your biggest challenges in 2018 and what must you accomplish to reach your team’s goals this season?
A: I think it always starts with the first contact – being able to serve & pass and doing that a really high level. Typically the team’s your seeing win the whole thing are doing that better than anybody else at the end of the season. That’s something we’ve got to continue to work on and be more consistent.
Trying to stay healthy is a big part, but so is figuring out the lineup. Who is going to step up and grab positions. We’re probably in the same boat probably a lot of other teams are going into this season. I think you’ll see a lot of teams that have a lot of movement within their lineups as they’re going through the non-conference trying to figure some things out and I’m guessing that we’ll probably be no different than a lot of those other pretty good programs.