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California Dreamin' II

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Hey Badger Fans!

Hope everyone had a good week. Like I said in the last update, half of the team went to Switzerland last week for the Montreux tournament, so the rest of us got a lot of reps and technical work done.

California Dreamin'

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Hey Badger fans,

Lauren Carlini here. I'm going to be doing a weekly update about how things are going out here as I'm training with the U.S. Women's National Team in Anaheim, California.

New faces add depth for 2014 Badgers

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After opening its spring season with drills at Marquette, the Wisconsin volleyball team continued competition Sunday afternoon, hosting Minnesota in the UW Field House. What was initially planned to be a full match was cut down to a three-set scrimmage due to opponent injuries. Despite the event's brevity, the crowd of more than 500 people was given a good taste of what to expect from the NCAA runner-up Badgers in the 2014-15 season.

The match featured a mix of familiar and new, as redshirt freshman Taylor Fricano and freshman Tori Blake both saw ample playing time. Sophomore Taylor Morey looked a natural in her role as libero, taking over for senior Annemarie Hickey, who coached from the sideline and assisted in drills before the match.

Blake, who saw action in just 22 sets last fall, switched off with junior Dominique Thompson and fellow freshman Haleigh Nelson at middle blocker. During the team's four-month break, Blake seems to have gained more control as a hitter, and fans can expect to see more of her in the upcoming season as she gains experience working with 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Lauren Carlini.

Time plays an integral role in the relationship between a setter and middle, allowing for their chemistry to build both on and off the court. This was apparent in the progression of Nelson through her first season, as she improved from one kill in her first match in the Cardinal and White to averaging 1.74 kills per set on a .318 attack percentage for her rookie season. In the same way, look for Blake and Carlini's on-the-court communication to progress as the pair works together throughout the spring and offseason.

Another new face on the court was Fricano, the 6-4 right side/outside hitter, who saw playing time after taking a redshirt during the 2013 season. Along with junior Ellen Chapman, Fricano stands as the team's tallest player. The two will complement one another nicely at the net with Chapman on the outside and Fricano on the right. The Badgers finished just seventh in the Big Ten with 2.33 blocks per set last season, and height may be a new defensive weapon for the team in the upcoming season.

One very familiar aspect of the scrimmage was the Badgers' signature aggressive serving. Head Coach Kelly Sheffield, 2013 Volleyball Magazine National Coach of the Year, has emphasized in the past that players have "been given the green light to be very aggressive" at the service line. This trend continued into spring competition, as UW garnered aces from multiple players including Chapman, who led the team in aces per set (0.23) in 2013. The crowd also saw a new face at the line as Nelson served for the first time on her birthday. Whether this was a birthday gift from Coach Sheffield or the start of a new trend for the 6-3 middle blocker is yet to be determined. Morey also made a serving transition, moving from a long float serve to a jump serve during the scrimmage.

Wisconsin will continue spring competition on Wednesday, April 16 as it hosts Marquette for a full match. Competition will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the UW Field House. Admission is free to all with several members of the team available afterwards for a Q&A.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Practice

Playing for the first time since their 2013 NCAA runner-up finish, the Wisconsin volleyball team opened the spring season with drills at Marquette on Wednesday. It didn't seem like it has been nearly four months since the last time the Badgers were on the court as most of the faces were very familiar.

The Badgers traveled 13 players to Marquette with nine seeing playing time. The injured brigade of Victoria Ito, Kt Kvas, Julie Mikaelsen and Caroline Workman didn't play though all four have been practicing this spring.

After the hour-and-a-half drive down I94, the team arrived at the Al McGuire Center about 6 p.m. While the warm-ups were shorter, they looked the same as last fall - peppering with a partner and then stretching followed by some hitting.

Coach Kelly Sheffield, the 2013 Volleyball Magazine National Coach of the Year, spent some time while the teams were warming up, chatting with new Marquette head coach Ryan Theis. The two are old Ohio buddies as Theis was the coach at Ohio University when Sheffield was at Dayton. Did you know Kelly recommended Theis for the Golden Eagles job?

The two spent nearly two hours playing six-on-six volleyball, though with a modified scoring format.

Theis called the first drill - each team served 15 times with each serve being followed by a setter pass then a free ball. The Badgers won three out of four times and had their most success when Deme Morales was in the front row. The 5-7 left-side hitter continued to impress fans with her leaping and hitting ability.

Sheffield took the second drill with the teams playing 26-6. The Badgers had to score three straight in order to get one big point while Marquette scored normally. The Golden Eagles won a tight first contest 26-5 while the scoring was reversed in the second with Wisconsin winning 26-3.

Sheffield experimented with several different line ups on the night, freely substituting players during the action. Courtney Thomas played on the right front and left front while Ellen Chapman saw time in the back row. Redshirt freshman Taylor Fricano also saw lots of action - mainly on the right side but also on the left front. Fans will be impressed with her jumping ability this spring and fall.

The Badgers didn't lose much at libero with the graduation of Annemarie Hickey as Taylor Morey held her own in the back row.

All in all, it was a successful first outing for the Badgers. They were a little rusty at times, especially on the block, and the changing line-ups also affected the team communication. The goals are high for the team this fall and lots of hard work this spring will help them reach those goals.   

Two things I've learned during the Badgers' NCAA tournament run

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1. I am not the jinx.

I started calling Wisconsin volleyball on the radio in 2008. I didn't know anything about the program other than they won a lot and got to the tournament all the time. 

That changed once I entered the picture. "You're a jinx," I would hear from co-workers after the first year. The talk increased in year two. By year three and beyond friends would ask "What has changed other than you started calling matches?"
 
For a while there, I think I even started to believe some of the talk. That was until this year when the team made the postseason for the first time since 2007. What a relief off my shoulders right? Now I know what Red Sox fans must have felt like after their World Series drought, to know that the "jinx" doesn't exist.

2. Confidence, combined with "dreaming big," can get you a long way.

Now that I have the silly stuff out of the way, let's get serious. This team's confidence is through the roof right now. That's not to say that the team wasn't confident throughout the season, but this confidence is paired with a mindset to "dream big." It has turned out to be a successful combination.

The players have never doubted what the result of every tournament game would be during this run. I talked to junior Courtney Thomas before the team's regional final match against Purdue and asked her what it's like being so close to making the NCAA National Semifinals, one of her dreams as a collegiate volleyball player. "It's so exciting! I mean we're going to Seattle, no doubt about it," she told me. She was right.

The coaching staff has encouraged the players to "dream big" and not just have a goal of winning one or two matches, but to strive for the entire thing and win six straight. I think it's been just as big of a key to their post-season success as their aggressive serving and tough defensive play.

Sure you need to put in the physical work, study the game and have a crazy elite skill set to get this far in the tournament, but trusting your abilities and believing good things will happen can take you to places you've only dreamed of before. Just ask the 2013 Badgers volleyball team.

Lucas at Large: Badgers grow together heading into home opener

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Wisconsin volleyball coach Pete Waite was asked if had a "wild card'' up his sleeve. That could be one player who has the potential to impact the mix, if she hasn't already, and make everyone better. That could be one player who is just beginning to understand how good she can be.

"Crystal Graff is starting to break out coming off an injury,'' Waite said of his sophomore outside hitter from Madison La Follette High School. "We didn't expect her to be on top of her game right away. But each week she's looking better and better.''

Waite knows what Graff can do when healthy. As a freshman, she started 19 of 20 matches before a leg injury sidelined her for the second half of the season and the spring. On Aug. 31, she had 13 kills against Cal State Northridge, just two shy of her career high of 15 set at NC State last year.

Waite had another "wild card'' candidate.

"The other one is on our right side and she's from Norway,'' Waite said of Julie Mikaelsen, a junior from Askim, Norway. "She's so much better than she was a year ago and I think she's going to be a big factor for us. She's one of our offensive leaders right now.''

Mikaelsen ranks fourth on the team in kills (2.57 per set) which may not seem like much until you revisit her narrative and consider how far she has literally come as a player, on and off the floor. Prior to this season, she had appeared in 50 matches, including 25 starts as a freshman.

"Her English has improved dramatically,'' Waite said. "If you were to speak to her, you would never know that she's Norwegian other than when she's talking about her homeland.''

One of Mikaelsen's coaches in Norway had previously coached professionally in the United States. One of his contacts had Wisconsin ties, which led to Waite recruiting Mikaelsen. "I went to watch her practice and play and I really liked her,'' Waite said.

Mikaelsen was originally a part of Wisconsin's 2009 recruiting class. But there were some questions about her NCAA eligibility. "She was here two days before our preseason camp, and we had to send her back for a year,'' Waite said. "I went and watched her again and she was more mature.''

During the 2009-10 season, Mikaelsen played for the University of Stavanger club team. Her international resume is fairly extensive through her participation with the Norwegian Junior National Team (2006-2010) and a summer stint with the Norwegian Senior National Team in 2011.

On top of all of that, she has been a good fit.

"She's a great teammate,'' Waite said.

That would seem to fall in line with the type of personality the Badgers have been cultivating.

"They're a pretty resilient group,'' Waite said. "We're pretty thin in the middle right now, so we just have Alexis Mitchell and Mary Ording. And they're just troopers; they're getting all the reps in practice. Mary is getting up to speed because it's not a position that she played much in the past.''

Mitchell , meanwhile, is a senior and proven Big Ten competitor.

"She isn't a big surprise, but she keeps getting better,'' Waite said. Who are the surprises then? "Deme Morales is in the back row and she's a phenomenal athlete with a great jump top-spin serve. Her ball control has come around a lot, and Annemarie Hickey continues to improve as a defensive player.''

The Badgers have won five of their first six matches; the only loss coming to Creighton. "We're pretty much where I thought we would be,'' Waite said. "You'd prefer to be undefeated. You never want to lose. But at times you have to be pushed by the best. They have to show you your weaknesses.''

Besides the resiliency that Waite has seen in some areas, he has also seen his players "getting tighter as a unit.'' That bodes well for the future and Waite's objective to get everyone to "believe that they can be one of the best teams in the conference.''

That takes time and patience.

"But when they do that -- believe -- they play at a very high level,'' he said, "and that's exciting to see. It's starting to form, but it's not quite there yet ... non-conference play is huge for us. We've talked to the team about that. They're working as hard as they can to get up to speed as fast as they can.

"We're seeing some good things, and I like that.''

Let the Weekend of the Badger begin

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In case you haven't noticed -- and it's been impossible not to notice if you work at Camp Randall Stadium -- Madison has spent the past two days being transformed into the center of the college sports universe.

It began Thursday when crews from ESPN, ESPN 3D, ESPN Radio, ESPN College GameDay, ESPNU Road Trip and the Sports Illustrated College Football Experience literally invaded Camp Randall to begin setting up for Saturday's matchup between No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State.

The madness has continued today and quickly enveloped the men's basketball and men's hockey teams, as well. Both programs have already been the subject of pieces filmed for the ESPNU Road Trip show.

'The Herd with Colin Cowherd' broadcast live this morning from the terrace at the Memorial Union. 'The Scott Van Pelt Show' is airing live as I type this with co-host Ryen Rusello orginating his portion of the broadcast from the lawn in front of the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center.

That set is the same one that Rusello and company will use for the day-long College GameDay on ESPN Radio broadcast Saturday.

Then there's the live broadcast of ESPN College GameDay live from inside Camp Randall beginning at 8 a.m. Gates open at 6:30 for those of you who want to join Chris, Lee, Kirk and Desmond.

And that's all before ESPN and ESPN 3D offer their live broadcasts of the showdown between the Badgers and Buckeyes. That's what we're all here for, remember.

But that's not stopping ESPNU Road Trip from picking up some color from around town by stopping by men's hockey practice and getting ice cream at the Union with Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor of the men's basketball team.

The hockey Badgers take on Alabama-Huntsville at 7 p.m. tonight to open their weekend series, with the basketball team then taking over the UW Field House at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for Field House Madness.

And we're going to be there. Keep checking back here all weekend for behind-the-scenes access and updates from hockey, College GameDay and Field House Madness, among others.

We'll chronicle the Weekend of the Badger here on the UWBadgers.com blog, on the Wisconsin Athletics YouTube  channel and on Twitter through @UWBadgersdotcom. If you're tweeting, be sure to use the #beatohiostate hashtag.

It's going to be a fun ride over the next 48 hours. Buckle up.


One career is over, another begins

For four future members of the Wisconsin volleyball team, their high school season is officially over. Four signees for the Badgers competed in the AAU Junior National Championships in Orlando, Fla., over the last four days. The championship wrapped up on Tuesday in the 18-open division with Dominique Thompson and her Minnesota One Volleyball Club winning the bronze medal. Thompson was also named to the 14-player AAU All-American team.
ON WISCONSIN