Wisconsin junior Courtney Thomas always considered herself having the personality of an outside hitter, even when the DeKalb graduate was a setter during her first two years on the Badgers’ volleyball team.
“My personality fits the hitting role a lot,” Thomas said. “I love to hit, so I’m enjoying every second of it right now. … I think I have a very aggressive personality that goes along with hitting. I think you have to be a very aggressive person to go up there and get blocks and not be timid. I don’t think I’m timid at all.” So Thomas wasn’t disappointed when Wisconsin picked up Lauren Carlini, the No. 1 recruit in the nation according to PrepVolleyball.com, to replace her at the setter position this season. And the switch to outside hitter has paid off.
With Thomas playing right hitter and Carlini setting, the No. 12 Badgers (27-9) have made a run all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four in Seattle, where they’ll play No. 1 seed Texas (27-2) tonight in the semifinals. No. 3 Washington (30-2) and No. 2 Penn State (32-2) will face off in the other semifinal.
Carlini, who was named a second-team All-American this year, has credited Thomas for mentoring her, and Thomas said playing setter helped her see things other hitters might not.
“I think being a setter for a lot of my time in volleyball is really helping me right now, hitting, because I know a lot more about the game,” said Thomas, who is fourth on the team with 301 kills while also serving as backup setter. “Being a setter can be difficult at times, and just being able to run the floor and know what’s going on not setting is really kind of cool, because as a setter, you don’t see the court and the net as much.”
The position change isn’t the only shift Thomas and her teammates have had to deal with this year. New coach Kelly Sheffield took over this season after the Badgers failed to qualify for the postseason for five consecutive seasons, and he immediately expressed high expectations for the Badgers, who weren’t ranked heading into the season.
“There was definitely a new culture, but I think a lot of players took a lot of initiative to make ourselves better and to make our team come together this year,” Thomas said. “Kelly is definitely a great motivator and he’s doing a great job for our team right now.”
The Badgers, whose nine losses are more than the other three teams in the Final Four combined, are certainly underdogs this week. Texas and Penn State have combined to win four out of the past five NCAA championships while Wisconsin has never it all, last getting to the Final Four in 2000, when the Badgers lost to Nebraska in the national title match in five sets.
To Thomas, the underdog status is something to look forward to.
“I think there are a lot of people that are doubting our team right now, and that’s motivation for us,” Thomas said. “I think that’s really cool. I feel like our team really has no pressure right now, and the feeling of going out there and winning and proving all of these people wrong, it’s really kind of cool.”
NCAA Tournament NCAA, Division I, semifinal, Wisconsin vs. Texas, at Seattle, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2 NCAA, Division I, semifinal, Washington vs. Penn St., at Seattle, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2