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Wisconsin volleyball: the best teams to never win a championship

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The Badgers have never won a national championship but they have been close a number of times.

2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

From 1993 to 2007 the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team didn’t miss the postseason. They won an NIT championship, three B1G titles and made the Elite 8 five times, finishing as national runners up once, during those 15 seasons. Then the Badgers suffered through five straight seasons where they had a losing record in conference and didn’t make the postseason once. Head coach Pete Waite was replaced with Kelly Sheffield before the 2013 season after Waite’s 2012 Badgers finished tenth in the B1G with a 17-16 overall record (5-15 B1G).

Sheffield has overseen a renaissance for the volleyball program. In his first year the Badgers made the finals of the NCAA Tournament, beating No. 1 seed Texas in the Final Four but losing to No. 2 seed Penn State in the finals. Since then, UW hasn’t missed a Sweet 16, won two B1G titles and finished as national runners up again, in 2019.

The Badgers are major players on the national stage in volleyball. They have alumnae on the US National Team, they have a roster chock full of all-conference and all-American players and they have highly rated recruiting classes coming in every year.

Despite all of this, Wisconsin has never gotten over the final hump and won a national title.

That means there is, if we are looking for a minuscule silver lining, ample options to discuss in this post. We’ll be focusing on the 2019, 2016, 2014 and 2013 teams because they are the four best Wisconsin volleyball teams to never win a national championship.


2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

2019

Record: 27-7 overall, 18-2 B1G
Accolades: B1G champions; finished No. 2 in the country; national runners up
Best players: Dana Rettke (B1G Player of the Year, 1st team all-B1G, 1st team all-America, NCAA all-tournament team); Sydney Hilley (B1G Setter of the Year, 1st team all-B1G, 1st team all-America); Grace Loberg (1st team all-B1G, honorable mention all-America); Molly Haggerty (2nd team all-B1G, 2nd team all-America, NCAA all-tournament team)
Last match of season: (L) to Stanford, 3-0, national championship

This team started off the season in a bit of a funk, and had idiots (like me) worried about them. They ended non-conference play at 4-4 with all four losses (Marquette, Baylor, Washington twice) coming to ranked opponents and three of those losses coming at the Field House.

Then B1G play began and the Badgers flipped a switch and won 12 straight matches, with only one going the full five sets. Going into the final weekend of the regular season the Badgers were travelling east to play No. 8 Penn State and Rutgers and needed PSU to lose once (and UW needed to beat Rutgers, but that was never really in doubt) in order to secure the conference title. On national TV, the Badgers were reverse swept by the Nittany Lions in heartbreaking fashion and then had to hope Minnesota would help them out and beat Penn State later in the weekend.

No. 4 Wisconsin barnstormed through the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, all at the Field House, and didn’t lose a single set while dispatching Illinois State, UCLA, No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 5 Nebraska (who lost all nine sets they played against Wisconsin in 2019) before heading to the Final Four in Pittsburgh.

There, No. 1 Baylor, who had already beaten Wisconsin in Madison, awaited. After losing the first set by two points a feeling of “here we go again” may have sunk in at home, but that feeling was nowhere near the Badgers bench. Wisconsin won the next three sets in convincing fashion and punched their ticket to the final against No. 3 Stanford.

The Cardinal had won two of the last three national titles and had recently gotten two time defending national player of the year Kathryn Plummer back from injury. Wisconsin’s offense couldn’t get anything going, while Stanford could just toss it up in Plummer’s general vicinity and get the point. She finished with 22 kills, one less than Haggerty, Danielle Hart, and Rettke put together.

Stanford played like a team that should be winning national titles at a 75% clip and, quite frankly, it was amazing to watch. Nothing Wisconsin tried worked for longer than a couple of points and everything the Cardinal tried worked to just about perfection.

While still heartbreaking to come so close and lose, there is no shame in losing to this iteration of the Stanford Cardinal. They were the best team last year and have probably been the best team for the past four years.

2016

Record: 28-5 overall, 17-3 B1G
Accolades: finished 2nd in B1G; finished No. 1 in the RPI; finished No. 5 in the country
Best players: Lauren Carlini (All-B1G, 1st team all-America); Haleigh Nelson (All-B1G, 2nd team all-America); Tionna Williams (All-B1G, 3rd team all-America); Molly Haggerty (B1G Freshman of the Year, B1G all-freshman team, honorable mention All-B1G)
Last match of the season: (L) to Stanford, 3-2, Elite 8

Unlike the 2019 team, the 2016 iteration of the Badgers stormed through their non-conference schedule, beating No. 6 Hawaii, No. 18 San Diego, No. 16 Texas A&M and No. 2 Texas. Only one of those games were at home, by the way, and the Badgers entered B1G play at 8-1 (only loss is at No. 11 UNC).

NCAA VOLLEYBALL: DEC 19 Div I Women’s Championship - Wisconsin v Baylor
Molly Haggerty isn’t a freshman in this picture, but she’s still kicking ass.
Photo by Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wisconsin went 17-3 in B1G, only losing (annoyingly) to a highly ranked Minnesota team twice and No. 1 Nebraska. The Badgers were the top-ranked team in the nation by RPI (entering the NCAA Tournament they had beaten 12 ranked opponents already), which made them the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and a regional host.

Up first was an Ohio State team that the Badgers had swept twice already. The Buckeyes put up far more of a fight in the Sweet 16 but Wisconsin was still able to win 3-2. No. 6 Stanford awaited them in the Elite 8.

Behind a raucous home crowd, Wisconsin bum rushed the Cardinal and opened up a 2-0 lead and looked to be heading to the Final Four. However, Stanford stormed back and reverse swept the Badgers to punch their ticket to the Final Four and start a run of three national titles in four years.

After the match Haleigh Nelson was asked about what it was like to wear the Wisconsin jersey for the last time.

“And this team is going to win a National Championship. You can guarantee it. People need to start believing in the Badgers because they’re coming. It might not have been this year and it might not have been the past three years, but they will. And it’s because they work so hard and they really truly deserve it. While unfortunately it wasn’t with us on the team, they’re coming.”

2014

Record: 31-3 overall, 19-1 B1G
Accolades: finished 1st in B1G; finished No. 5 in the RPI and tops in the B1G; finished No. 4 in the country
Best players: Lauren Carlini (B1G Player of the Year, B1G Setter of the Year, 1st team all-America); Courtney Thomas (1st team all-B1G, 2nd team all-America); Taylor Morey (B1G Defensive Player of the Year, 2nd team all-America); Haleigh Nelson and Dominique Thompson (honorable mention all-America and all-B1G)
Last match of the season: (L) to Penn State, 3-1, Elite 8

The 2014 season saw the Badgers record their best winning percentage (.912) in program history (since 1982 when three-set matches began) and the second most wins in a season (behind 2000’s 33 wins). They had five players receive some sort of all-America honor and won four of the five major B1G conference end of season awards. They lost their first B1G match of the season and then won 19 in a row and only lost eight sets in conference play all year.

They were a juggernaut.

Lauren Carlini won a lot of awards.

But, there was one team that was the kryptonite to the Badgers’ juggernaut (MARVEL AND DC REFERENCES COLLIDING!) and that was Penn State. The Nittany Lions swept the Badgers to open B1G play and then ended their season in the Elite 8 in Louisville, 3-1. PSU would go on to win the title, their second in a row. Read on to find out who they beat in 2013!

This may have been the best Badgers team ever and they didn’t even make it to the Final Four. What a damn shame.

2013

Record: 28-10 overall, 12-8 B1G
Accolades: finished 4th in B1G; Kelly Sheffield was named national coach of the year; finished No. 2 in the country
Best players: Lauren Carlini (B1G Freshman of the Year, All-B1G, 2nd team all-America, NCAA all-tournament team); Ellen Chapman (honorable mention all-America); Haleigh Nelson (B1G all-freshman team)
Last match of the season: (L) to Penn State, 3-1, National Title game

Wisconsin started off the season 11-1 in non-conference play, including a win over No. 17 Louisville. Then B1G play started and, I suppose “up and down” would be a good way to describe how the season went. To be fair, Wisconsin had a murderer’s row of a schedule, playing 18 ranked teams and at one point having six straight ranked matches in a row.

Coach, thinking about sports I’d guess.

The Badgers made the NCAA Tournament as the No. 12 seed and won their first two matches, in Madison, against Milwaukee and Cal. Next they caught a couple of breaks when Florida State (who was still ranked No. 16) beat No. 5 Florida to make it to the Sweet 16 and then Purdue (who was still ranked No. 19) beat No. 13, and host, Illinois to get to the Elite 8.

Wisconsin beat both FSU and Purdue 3-1 to get into the Final Four as the decided underdog among the remaining teams. No. 1 Texas was waiting for the Badgers and on the other side of the bracket No. 2 Penn State played No. 3 Washington. The Badgers upset the Longhorns (only the second time in school history they had beaten the No. 1 team in the country) and were rewarded with a third match against PSU.

The Nittany Lions had swept the Badgers twice already in 2013 and while the Badgers technically improved in the title game, losing 3-1, it probably wasn’t the result they were hoping for.


So there you have it. Four seasons of Wisconsin volleyball that all ended in various levels of heartbreak! All four of the teams that beat Wisconsin in this post went on the win the national title. Ain’t sports fun?