Dec. 18, 2013
BY AJ Harrison
UW Athletic Communications
he last time the Wisconsin volleyball team advanced to the national semifinals was 13 years ago. But to two-time All-American setter Lizzy (Fitzgerald) Stemke, it feels like even longer.
"It honestly seems like a million years ago," Stemke said. "I can remember that we were hot at the end of the 2000 season. We came out and won the Big Ten title outright that year. The team was a more veteran team, and we were excited to keep it going. We didn't want the season to end."
|"I think they have a team with a chip on their shoulder looking to prove something," Stemke said. "When you are on the same page, great things can happen."
The 2000 Wisconsin team became the first in program history to advance to the final four after earning a hard-fought win at the UW Field House in the Mideast Regional final against UCLA, which was led by 2000 ASICS/Volleyball Magazine Player of the Year Kristee Porter. Both Stemke and Sherisa Livingston, a two-time All-American and 2000 Big Ten Player of the Year, remember the adversity the Badgers faced in the regional final.
"That match was one of the most memorable moments of the tournament," Livingston said. "We had two major injuries that happened right around the match and a lot of our girls were sick. UCLA was a great team and we knew it wasn't going to be easy.
"All I can remember is that we were thinking `We have to do this.'"
"It might be the longest match in tournament history," Stemke recalls about the two hour, 44 minute contest. "It was an incredibly hard fought match by both teams. I remember in the match prior to UCLA that our starting right side (Claudia Rodriguez) had dislocated her shoulder, and during the match we had our starting middle blocker (Meggan Kohnen) sprain her ankle. A few of us had the flu the week prior and we were in the hospital getting IVs.
"It was one of those crazy weeks leading up to the regional final, which was in Wisconsin, which made the match that more special.
"I'm getting chills looking back, it was one of those matches you remember forever."
Despite being without the services of Rodriguez, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2000, and Kohnen, who had a season-best 14 kills before her injury, Wisconsin earned a five-set triumph over UCLA to move onto the national semifinals
The current Badgers enter the semis with a tough test, facing defending NCAA champion and No. 1-seeded Texas on Thursday in a 6:30 p.m. tilt at KeyArena in Seattle. The 2000 squad also entered the final four with a tough matchup against No. 2 USC, but the Badgers took care of Trojans in three sets to advance to the final, where UW fell to Nebraska in a five-set thriller.
|The 2000 Wisconsin volleyball team was the first squad in program history to advance to the final four. The Badgers advanced to the title match before falling in five sets.
"When all the cards were stacked against us, we came out on top against USC in a clean, well-executed match," Stemke said. "It was an incredible run by a team that fought hard and worked together."
"We were in the same position as many thought that we were just lucky to be there," Livingston said. "I think you can't listen to what other people say about your team. The only opinions that matter are in the Wisconsin locker room. If they think they can go out there and win, that's all that matters."
Livingston, who went on to play professional volleyball before becoming a volunteer assistant at Nebraska, remembers how much fun she had with her teammates during the season and tournament run.
"I remember it being such a great season," Livingston said. "I always loved those teammates, any time I was on a good team, I would compare that team to the 2000 team at Wisconsin. I was lucky to attend Wisconsin and play with those girls."
The 2000 team featured five players that earned All-America honors at one point in their career. Stemke, now the head coach at Georgia, believes the balance of this year's Wisconsin squad is one of the reasons why the Badgers have advanced this far in the tournament.
|"It was an incredible run by a team that fought hard and worked together," Stemke said.
"To me, it looks like a team that believes. Which reminds me of the 2000 team," Stemke said. "It is a team that believes in each other, believes in what the coaches are doing, and it looks like they have some great momentum They have some nice talent on that roster, but what I think makes them special is their balance.
"They have one of the best setters in the country, for a freshman, she's handling her role with incredible stamina and leadership. That is exciting for them.
"I think they have a team with a chip on their shoulder looking to prove something. When you are on the same page, great things can happen."
Stemke, who won a silver medal with the U.S. at the 2002 World Championships, has been impressed with current UW setter Lauren Carlini, who on Wednesday became the first Wisconsin freshman to earn All-America honors.
"What Carlini is doing is absolutely phenomenal." Stemke said. "There is no way that I would have been able to do that as freshman. That transition from high school to college is so drastic. The setter touches the ball more than anyone on the court and the fact she has made the transition smoothly, while battling some injuries at the beginning at the year, she has worked her way to a position of great leadership. Regardless of the age, the setter is the leader.
"What she is doing is impressive at any age and doing it as a freshman is very impressive."
Although both are now coaches elsewhere, Livingston and Stemke are excited that their alma mater is back on volleyball's biggest stage.
"I know they will fight for the match," Livingston said. "Whatever the outcome is, I wish them good luck and I hope they give it 100 percent."
"As an alum, I'm proud to see the squad get back there," Stemke said. "I know who I will be rooting for Thursday. Go Badgers!"