‘We’re scientists right now’: Wisconsin volleyball’s unconventional path to

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WAUNAKEE, Wis. – A few hours after practice begins with players juggling tennis balls and Def Leppard rattling through the gym, a little while after serving groups are divided into Packers fans and non-Packers fans, Kelly Sheffield sits in a wine bar and describes his first office as a college volleyball head coach. This was at Albany. He shared space with rakes, shovels and snowmobiles belonging to the grounds crew. He assumes his computer was the first one ever made. For the first home match, he scrubbed net poles wearing his suit. Thirteen people showed up.

This audience, on this Tuesday night, is into it. It should be. We’re a short drive north of Wisconsin’s campus. Also it’s $100 a head to get in.

“B.S. and Bourbon” is the event, with part of the proceeds redirected to volleyball NIL efforts. Storytelling is required, and Sheffield cycles through his library of hits. How he inherited the school’s “party team,” as he puts it, and somehow it reached the NCAA championship match that winter of 2013. How he schemed to get air conditioning installed in UW Field House. How he ticked off the Big Ten and television networks with a tweet about coverage. How Waunakee police once pulled him over because he was following his young daughter in his car near a park and someone called in a suspicious driver.

People laugh between sips, but there’s a gasp, too, when the guest of honor jokes that he can’t talk about his playing career because there isn’t one. It’s a seminal fact, and yet, wildly, news to some patrons: Sheffield runs a volleyball powerhouse having never competed in the sport. How their coach has performed that bit of alchemy, how he’s become a filter-free advocate for the game while building a team positioned to chase another national title, is essentially a mystery to them.

He doesn’t need all night to explain that part.

“If I didn’t ask questions,” Sheffield tells the crowd at Red & White Winebar, “I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Wisconsin’s volleyball team won the 2021 NCAA championship. (Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

As of Thanksgiving week, the total is 559 wins in 22-plus seasons across three jobs, including 18 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin volleyball has reached five Final Fours, and Kelly Sheffield has been on the sideline for four of them. It was four straight Big Ten championships until a loss at then-No. 16 Purdue on Friday put a fifth out of reach. This stopped being quirky a long time ago. Actually, this isn’t even the first time a head coach with zero playing experience has led a volleyball leviathan, nor the first time such a coach has received a paycheck from this particular school. John Cook — the head coach in Madison from 1992-98 — checks both boxes, and he’s bringing unbeaten No. 1 Nebraska to town on Friday for a rematch of a five-set epic played on Oct. 21.

Still, this is the first time a historically competitive…

Read More: ‘We’re scientists right now’: Wisconsin volleyball’s unconventional path to 2023-11-20 10:01:33

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