PITTSBURGH – Tiffany Clark laughed, and it was the darnedest thing.
It had been close to a month since the Wisconsin Badgers dropped a set. They’d made it look easy since, mopping up Illinois State, UCLA, Nebraska in this NCAA Tournament. Nobody touched the Badgers.
And then, in the semifinals Thursday night of the NCAA Division I Championship, Baylor made them look mortal again, in a see-sawing 27-25 first set.
How, it was fair to wonder, would they respond against a team that had beaten them in September?
With an ace, and a laugh.
Clark, Wisconsin’s excellent libero, had the first ball of the second set glance off of her for an ace. And then she laughed, as if she hadn’t a worry in the world. And it’s quite possible she didn’t. Maybe she knew all along that this Wisconsin team would win, which it did, 25-27, 25-21, 25-17, 25-19.
Or maybe she just had trust.
It is often the simplest lessons that become the most indelible. That has proved to be true for Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield. It was six years ago that he learned, that he internalized to the core, how vital it is to trust his team, especially on this stage, this late in the season.
It was then, in 2013, in his first season with the program, that the Badgers were becoming the national power they are today.
Considered a Cinderella then, they danced their way to the final four, and it sounds almost silly now, to call that position unfamiliar for Wisconsin, but it was at the time. The Badgers hadn’t been there since 2000. It would have been easy, then, to try and stretch. Press. Do more than you had all season long. To get away from what had gotten you there.
A conversation with the late coach Mike Hebert, before the first semifinal matchup against Texas, changed that.
“He said, “You’ve gotten this far. Trust your team. Trust your team. Trust your players. Don’t overthink things,’” Sheffield said after the win. “I don’t know if that answers your question, but I wanted to make sure that — that was such amazing coaching advice. And sometimes we can over-coach in these situations. You prepare, and sometimes players can overthink things.
“And that was a constant message that we were saying just about every single time out, no matter who called it, this is great. This is awesome. Trust.”
Sydney Hilley did not have that conversation with Hebert. She was never coached by the man. And yet it was Hilley who, after Wisconsin dropped that first set, reminded Sheffield to just trust it. Trust it even if the Badgers didn’t necessarily look like the team that had cruised through the first three matches of this NCAA Tournament.
The setter recognized that the opening set was an aberration. She recognized that, no, it was not the best start for outside hitter Grace Loberg and right side Madison Duello. Neither were hitting in the positives, with four errors to just a single kill, while middle Dana Rettke and outside hitter Molly Haggerty had kills on 10 of 16 swings.
And still: Hilley continued to look for Loberg. Because that’s what she’s done all season. That’s what got Wisconsin here, to Pittsburgh, one of four teams in the country still playing. She wasn’t going to change now.
“They all know I have so much trust in them no matter what’s going on,” said Hilley, who finished with 43 assists and three aces. “If Grace makes an error, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going back to you right now, you better get ready for it, like stop thinking about the last one kind of thing.’ But, yeah, I never lose that in my hitters, and it’s just really a special thing to be able to set any one, and any single one of my hitters can take over a match any night, which is really, really cool.”
So maybe Clark had good reason to laugh off that ace early in the second set. Maybe Hilley had good reason to continue to return to the hitters who had gotten Wisconsin all the way here. For who was it, late in the match, who produced some of the biggest kills, a handful of the biggest plays?
Duello and Loberg.
“And that’s all because trust,” Sheffield said. “Syd had trust in her hitters.”
Sheffield oversaw an excellent roster in 2013, to be sure, one with players like youngsters Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson that was likely easy to trust, even if the Badgers hadn’t been on that stage in more than a decade. But there is something different about a Wisconsin team that includes a setter like Hilley, a middle like Rettke, an outside like Haggerty, a libero like Clark, all of whom are right up there with the best at their position in the country.
They were rock-solid all night long for the Badgers.
Rettke closed with 19 kills on 31 attempts. Haggerty didn’t make a single error until late in the third set, finishing with 15 kills on 29 attempts. Clark proved, over and over and over, to be one of the few liberos in the nation capable of taking the best of Baylor outside hitter Yossiana Pressley and finding a way, any way — one arm, two arms, a left fist, a chest — to get the ball up. Sixty-eight times did Pressley swing on Thursday night. Twenty-five times did she put it away. It’s an astounding number, those 25 kills, especially on this Wisconsin defense. But even more astounding is that the Badgers kept Pressley below .200, thanks, in large part, to Clark’s 18 digs in the backcourt.
“Just Badger Ball,” Sheffield dubbed it, laughing a bit. “We were flying around all over the place up there. Just loved it. A few of those were just free balls ended in a block, and sometimes they ended up getting a kill, and a couple times we were fighting to get the ball up in the air, and our outsides are getting their feet to the ball and taking big swings. Our scramble plays were certainly fun to watch.”
It’s a lot more fun to watch when it goes your way.
When you just trust that somehow, some way, it will.