Oct. 10, 2013
MADISON, Wis. - First-year head coach Kelly Sheffield picked a tough time to coach in the Big Ten Conference.
"I talked to a couple of coaches last night who thought this is the best the conference has ever been this year," Sheffield said at Monday's news conference. "From top to bottom, and I've only been following this just kind of an outsider, but it certainly seems tough to me."
Sheffield joined the select group known as Big Ten volleyball coaches this fall and the conference has become an even bigger powerhouse this season. Nine teams are ranked or receiving votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Top 25 poll and eight teams are ranked among the top-30 teams in the first NCAA RPI released earlier this week.
The conference is also displaying a parity that it hasn't shown in a while as five of six matches played on Oct. 5 went to five sets. Two of the matches featured unranked teams pushing top-12 teams to a fifth set.
"(Almost) every match went to five on Saturday night," Sheffield said. "That's crazy."
The Badgers (14-2, 3-1) are in the midst of a six-match stretch against ranked teams. UW travels to No. 14 Ohio State (14-2, 2-2) on Friday for a 6 p.m. (CT) first serve from St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio. UW's four-match road trip then wraps up on Saturday at No. 4 Penn State (13-2, 4-1) with a 7:30 p.m. (CT) match from Rec Hall in University Park, Pa.
Sheffield was asked what it's going to take to win the conference this season and he replied, "I'd be shocked if anybody goes undefeated or is a one-loss team. There are a lot of good teams and I think there are a lot of environments that are really tough to play in. I haven't put much thought into it, but I would say it's probably going to be four losses might win this thing."
Currently only No. 7 Michigan State and No. 9 Nebraska are undefeated in Big Ten play at 4-0. No. 4 Penn State, one of the Badgers' opponents this weekend, is third at 4-1 while No. 19 Wisconsin is sitting in fourth place at 3-1.
So what does Sheffield think of coaching in the Big Ten?
"I'm stoked to go against it," said Sheffield earlier this season before opening Big Ten play. "I think our players are (too). That's why you come to this conference to play against and with the best.
"You're playing back to back against some of the best programs in the country."
So far, Sheffield's team has proven it can play with some of the best teams in the nation. Wisconsin dropped its first Big Ten match last Saturday, falling at then-No. 10 Nebraska in five sets in front of more than 8,000 fans.
"(The Huskers) got a brand new facility," said Sheffield. "It's a really nice place that they play in, and the fans there, you hear them really loud when you get on a two-point run. It was about as loud of an away environment as I've probably been in.
"I thought our kids handled it really well. They stayed focused and for the most part executed. I think we've got to get a lot better at executing at the end of sets. We've just got to get better."
The Badgers are already better than their 17-16 record from last season, when they finished tied for ninth in the Big Ten at 5-15.
Sheffield has credited his team's toughness for winning matches.
"This is probably about as tough of a team as I've had," Sheffield said. "What we're learning is how to deal with adversity and how to work through those issues together -- being able to move on to the next play quickly. Those are things that we're learning to do."
The steep learning curve of life in the Big Ten continues this weekend.