In its 45 years of existence, the story of the University of Wisconsin–Madison volleyball program has been long and winding, with a number of highs and lows notched along the way. Today, the Badgers hold a number of distinctions, both locally and nationally.
Since its founding on July 1, 1974, UW–Madison volleyball has scored some impressive milestones for the record books, including championships and strong support on the university campus and elsewhere in Madison.
“We have won 5 Big Ten Championships and have appeared in 22 NCAA tournaments, advancing to the national final match twice, in 2000 and 2013,” says Diane Nordstrom, associate athletic communications director with Wisconsin Athletics.
UW–Madison volleyball, which is in the midst of a strong string of seasons, currently boasts the second highest attendance record in the sport compared to other university programs across the United States. While the team’s red-hot winning streak is a likely contributor to robust attendance figures, Diane says she attributes other factors to the phenomenon as well, including going to great lengths to ensure fans of all ages are treated to an entertaining, invigorating experience. “The success of the team has certainly drawn a lot of fans, but it’s also a fun game to watch. It’s very fast paced and requires players who are very athletic.”
In addition to competing and playing their best, Diane says the women athletes, coaches, and others involved in the game strive to provide an experience that inspires and appeals to all people. “It’s a very family-friendly environment. Families and children have opportunities to meet the players,” she says. “The players will pose for photos with the children.”
Volleyball is among the 12 original sports offered within UW’s broader Wisconsin Athletics program. The team notched small milestones initially before advancing on to greater successes in the ensuing decades. Examples of some of the early successes include winning the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WWIAC) championship in 1978, winning the tournament with a 3-0 mark.
Another notable entry in the record book came on October 21, 1987, when the Badgers upset No. 19 Northwestern University in Big Ten play. It was the first time members of the UW-Madison volleyball program won over a ranked team in a Big Ten matchup.
Some of the small, but steady, successes were a primer for what was to come in the following decade. A turning point for Badgers volleyball was in 1990 when the team hit the record books on November 24 with their first Big Ten title, scoring an exhilarating 3-0 win at Michigan State University. The following week, on November 30, the Badgers swept Illinois in their first NCAA tournament match, doing so in front of 10,935 fans. At the time, it was the largest crowd ever to watch a Badger match at UW–Madison’s Field House.
UW–Madison volleyball’s strength continued the following year with several highlights, including advancement to the second straight NCAA tournament, defeating Bowling Green State University 3-0 in the first round of play. “There were a lot of milestones for the team back then,” Diane says, reflecting on the pivotal time in UW–Madison volleyball’s history.
There have been assorted peaks and valleys in the years since, but UW-Madison volleyball’s upward trajectory in more recent times can be traced back to 2013, when Head Coach Kelly Sheffield took the helm of the team. Since taking the reins, Coach Sheffield has been credited with making UW–Madison volleyball one of the country’s finest collegiate programs in the sport. In his first season, he took the Badgers to a 28-10 season—an 11-win improvement from the year prior. The team’s 2013 successes marked the first time they were eligible for the NCAA tournament in six years.
In his time at the helm, Coach Sheffield has led the Badgers to five straight NCAA Sweet 16 tournament appearances. During that time, Wisconsin Volleyball has also finished among the top four teams in the Big Ten Conference in four out of five seasons.
Overall, Coach Sheffield’s UW–Madison record in his first five years stands at 135-35. His overall coaching record in the first 17 years of his career stands at 408-147. Other notable statistics include a 75-25 Big Ten record and 19-13 NCAA record.
Diane says the Badgers’ continued presence in the Big Ten is a testament to Coach Sheffield’s coaching and the strength of the team roster. “It’s a very tough conference to play in,” she says.
In a statement encapsulated in the team’s record book, Coach Sheffield outlines his philosophy behind his role as the leader of the Badgers volleyball team. “The goal is to compete for Big Ten championships as it should be at Wisconsin…if you are competing for Big Ten championships, that puts you in the top echelon of teams in the country, and that’s where we want to be.”
The goal of taking part in Big Ten Championships, however, is only part of the overarching mission, according to Coach Sheffield. At a more granular level, he also guides his players with a more basic mantra. “There’s also a clear understanding that you have to immerse yourself in the process of getting better—that’s where the daily focus has to be,” he says.
Over time, the number of players in UW–Madison volleyball has grown. The 2019 roster includes nearly 20 players, ranging from freshmen to seniors. While most of the women hail from assorted Wisconsin towns, the team collectively has players from other areas of the country, including Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia.
While high endurance and athleticism are qualifications for the women playing on the team, Diane says other factors, including scholastics, are an important part of the equation. “It’s important they keep up with their academic work,” Diane says, pointing out most of the players maintain a 3.0 grade point average or above. “The strive for excellence carries over into the classroom as well.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.