Kelly Sheffield’s pre-practice message to his University of Wisconsin volleyball team Tuesday was simple and direct.
“We’re 0-0 and we need to get better,” he told the team before it began preparations for Friday’s Big Ten Conference opener against No. 15 Purdue (8-1) at the UW Field House.
That’s the message, he insisted, he would have if the Badgers were 8-0 or 0-8 heading into the match rather than their current 4-4 record.
Sheffield understands UW fans might be feeling some angst after watching their team just break even in the pre-conference season, losing all three of their home matches, and coming off a drubbing by Washington in the second of back-to-back matches.
The preseason favorites to win the Big Ten title, the No. 13 Badgers enter conference play with the worst record among the 14 teams.
While that’s not what anyone involved in the program had in mind, Sheffield attributes it at least in part to the increased competitive balance in the sport. Only two of the top 25 teams — No. 2 Baylor and No. 21 California — are undefeated and No. 1 Stanford (6-2) already has one more loss than it did all of last season.
“It’s college volleyball right now,” Sheffield said. “It’s never been deeper than it is right now. It’s one of the challenging things as coaches but it’s one of the most awesome things. I think it’s the best and deepest this sport has ever been. You never would’ve seen what has been going on this year 15 years ago. There might have been better super teams, but our sport has never seen this.”
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That said, Sheffield knows his team has to step up its game if it is to fulfill its lofty preseason aspirations.
“We’ve got to sustain good play for longer periods of time,” he said. “That’s where we’re at. We’ve got to stretch out our good. That’s our challenge.”
The biggest challenge will be to improve the team’s defensive play. Washington hit .457 in its sweep on Saturday, boosting UW’s opponents hitting percentage to .255 for the season. That’s by far the worst in the Big Ten, with Iowa ranked 13th at .202.
In UW’s four losses — all to teams currently in the top 10 — those teams have hit a ghastly .304. But even in the four victories, the Badgers have allowed a .181 hitting percentage, which would rank only 10th in the conference.
“We have got to be better defensively, there is no question about that,” Sheffield said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s not effort. We’re working on those things in here, but for whatever reason it has not carried over onto the court. The good thing is that we’re capable of it.”
That’s what the players were reminding themselves.
“We had a long talk with just the team and we put out ideas about what we thought (the problem) was,” redshirt senior Madison Duello said. “We are a very talented team and it’s just trying to get all of that clicking at one time consistently. We’re trying to figure it out and we’re hoping that as we go we’ll figure it out and hit our stride this weekend.”
Sheffield is confident that his team has the proper mindset approaching the new season.
“You have a choice,” he said. “As a team and a coaching staff you can sit here and point fingers at everybody. It can be doom and gloom. Or you can say, all right, let’s get better. Let’s believe in ourselves.
“I love the chemistry of this group. I love the leadership of this group. We’ve got to sustain our good play for longer periods of time and we’ve got to be better defensively than we have been. I think all of us, fans and players included, are looking forward to seeing some improvement.”