Rematch? Not really.
Revenge opportunity? No way.
Interesting coincidence? That’s more like it.
The University of Wisconsin volleyball team will meet Stanford in the NCAA tournament regionals Friday night for the second consecutive year.
But much has happened to both programs since that match in the regional final a year ago when the Cardinal rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the last three sets to earn a spot in the Final Four and eventually capture the seventh national championship in program history.
The lineup that will take the floor for the Badgers at Stanford is almost entirely different from a year ago, with only junior middle blocker Tionna Williams and sophomore defensive specialist M.E. Dodge returning in the same positions, and even Dodge’s role has been altered.
Stanford’s lineup, on the other hand, remains largely intact, with the notable exception of All-American middle Inky Ajanaku, who is now playing professionally in Switzerland. But the Cardinal has new leadership as legendary coach John Dunning retired and was replaced by former Illinois coach Kevin Hambly.
The two programs have also switched roles. Last year the Badgers earned the home court as the No. 4 overall seed with a veteran lineup featuring All-Americans Lauren Carlini and Haleigh Nelson, while the Cardinal was coming on strong after a slow start with a heralded freshman class surrounding Ajanaku.
This year, Stanford (28-3) is the No. 3 overall seed and is among the favorites for the title, while the Badgers (22-9) are the upstarts with a young, improving lineup that is hoping to peak at the end of the season.
“This year our team is completely different so it’s going to be a different kind of battle with them,” said senior outside hitter Kelli Bates, who played libero in last year’s match. “They have a lot of returners so it’ll be kind of be the same situation but opposite. I’m excited to play them and it’s going to be fun.”
UW coach Kelly Sheffield said last year’s match is largely irrelevant this year.
“We’re not going to talk about it,” he said. “A lot of our kids on the team right now, even quite a few of them that are playing, last year they were getting ready for West Central High School or something like that and finishing up their Christmas shopping. We’ve got players on our team I’m not even sure they know who Inky Ajanaku is.
“It was a fantastic match, a great NCAA tournament match last year, a great environment. But their best player is gone, they’ve got a new coach. I think our energy and our focus will be, hey, we’ve got an opportunity in front of us to keep playing and keep advancing in the NCAA tournament. Let’s keep the distractions out and focus in on what we have to do, which is beat this year’s Stanford team with this year’s players.”
Last year’s match left its mark on those who played in it.
“It was heartbreaking,” Bates said. “That’s one of those games you’re going to remember for a really long time. That game was not something I thought would’ve happened, but I’m glad it did. I’m glad Stanford ended up bringing their best match against us. You always take something away from that.”
Senior Lauryn Gillis said that match provided an important life lesson.
“It brings up what can happen in sports,” Gillis said. “You can be up 2-0 and lose. You can’t consider anything over until it’s over.
“Not to be cliché, but that’s something you can carry over into life. You have to finish things completely no matter what it is. We don’t talk about Stanford, but we talk about finishing strong.”
Freshman middle blocker Dana Rettke watched that match along with future teammates Grace Loberg and Mariah Whalen from the grandstand just above the scoreboard in the southeast corner of the Field House. She remembers feeling compassion for the seniors who had helped recruit her to UW mixed with a resolve for the future.
“I knew when I was watching that game that everyone would want another chance at Stanford,” Rettke said. “I remember thinking I’m going to be doing this next year. That was crazy to me. It’s real now.”
The Badgers will be playing in the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year, going 3-1 in the past four years. The past three such matches have gone to five sets. While this year’s opponent adds a level of intrigue, it’s only a minor source of inspiration.
“There’s always motivation because this is a Sweet 16 game,” Bates said. “It just so happens that Stanford is the Sweet 16 game. The big thing is I want to put more stuff up in the gym. I want to put banners up there.”