Kelli Bates wasted little time making a big impression on the University of Wisconsin volleyball team.
Bates, the Badgers’ only true freshman, recorded a spectacular first kill in UW’s opening match Aug. 29, rising high above the net to take a perfect cross-court set from Lauren Carlini and smash it off a hapless Louisville blocker.
For those who missed it, UW coach Kelly Sheffield is only too happy to show a replay of it on his phone.
“Her first college kill is what you dream of, bouncing it off of somebody like that,” Sheffield said.
Such experiences could become commonplace as Bates has quickly established herself as a mainstay in the No. 4 Badgers’ lineup. In their sweeps over Louisville and Notre Dame last weekend, she played six rotations in three sets and defensive specialist in the other three sets. She had two kills against Louisville and eight against Notre Dame.
“She’s a dynamic athlete,” Sheffield said. “Her kills are very explosive. She adds an element to this team that we really like.”
Sheffield saw the makings of that player when he started recruiting Bates early in her career at Bradley-Bourbonnais High School in Bradley, Illinois. At that time, however, he was recruiting her to play at Dayton.
Bates committed to play for the Flyers, only to see Sheffield move on to UW last year. That got Bates wondering if there was a chance that she’d be able to make the same move.
“I loved everything about Dayton,” Bates said. “Volleyball was a priority there, which is something that was big when I was figuring out where I wanted to go to college.
“When (Sheffield) made the jump, I asked him if I was going to be able to come here. All my life I’ve been told, ‘You’re not big enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not this, you’re not that.’ So I had a lot of doubts within myself that I wasn’t going to be able to. But I figured why not ask him; it can’t hurt.”
Truth be told, Sheffield had some doubts as to whether Bates was big enough and strong enough to make it in the Big Ten Conference.
But those doubts vanished when he saw her playing in a club tournament with her Chicago Ultimate Volleyball Club. What he saw was a player who had grown a couple of inches to 5-foot-11 and the explosive jumping ability to be a six-rotation player.
“She was a baller when she was younger, a great competitor,” Sheffield said. “She’s added some vertical to her game and some strength. In this league, at her size not only does she need to be extremely skilled, but she’s got to pick herself off the ground very quickly.”
Bates said it was tough to renege on her commitment to Dayton, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come to UW and compete against the best players and programs in the nation.
“It was really selfish of me to do that,” she said.
“But it’s what’s best for me and probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Sheffield said Bates has the highest vertical leap on the team, reaching a height matched only by 6-4 redshirt freshman Taylor Fricano and 6-4 senior Ellen Chapman.
“She doesn’t play small,” he said. “She has a very high contact point. Her block is very similar to where Chapman is. She plays big. You look at her when she walks out there and you think size is still an issue, but there are some tall kids out there that don’t play very tall.”
Even before her growth spurt, Bates was determined to avoid being typecast as just a back row player.
“I did not want to give up hitting at all,” she said. “I was recruited to go to some schools to play libero, but that’s just not what I wanted to do. I love attacking. I love getting physical. That’s just how I am.”