Courtney Thomas has never climbed to the top of the mountain.
The DeKalb High School graduate and current Wisconsin junior willed the Barbs to a regional championship in 2010, but never advanced to the state finals.
As a club player, her 18U team at Sports Performance made the national finals, but came up one match short, finishing as the runner-up.
Yet now Thomas finds herself with one more chance to win that elusive championship as her Badgers will play Big Ten rival Penn State on Saturday for the NCAA title at 8:30 p.m. CST in Seattle.
"It couldn't have happened to a more deserving young lady," said Rick Butler, club director for Sports Performance and Thomas' coach for her final club volleyball season. "She's put up with a lot of heartache in her life and she's worked really hard to get here in her life."
Butler first met Thomas when she came to Sports Performance as a seventh grader. Since then she's developed a natural leadership ability and versatility on the court.
Both characteristics were showcased at Wisconsin this year when Thomas stepped aside from her starting setter spot for incoming freshman Lauren Carlini, whom she knew from her days at Sports Performance. Yet Thomas still kept a prominent role in the Badgers' rotation as an outside hitter.
"I've talked to [Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield] several times and he really raves about the job she's done," Butler said. "Courtney, who set the Wisconsin team for two years, steps aside and said 'Whatever it takes I'll do it'. Sometimes it's really hard for a player to do that."
Debbie Klock coached against Thomas from 2007-10, when Thomas was playing for DeKalb and Klock was leading a Sycamore team that twice advanced to state during Thomas' high school career. While Klock and Thomas were rivals in high school, Klock admires what Thomas has accomplished at Wisconsin.
Last year, Klock's final season at Sycamore, she even made her Spartans team watch on television as Thomas and the Badgers played against Penn State.
Klock watched Thursday's semifinal matchup against No. 1 seed Texas and was complimentary of the Badgers' consistent positive attitude and body language. She compared Thomas' on-court intangibles to Northern Illinois senior libero Justine Schepler, who played at Sycamore under Klock from 2006-09.
"[Thomas] has grown up so much. She is four times the player she was in high school," Klock said. "Her character, her leadership. She has grown so much as a respected player."
Wisconsin was swept by Penn State twice during the regular season, but the Badgers have now won six matches in a row following the upset win on Thursday. While this year's team has managed to advance to where only one other Wisconsin team has gotten in program history, the future may be even brighter for Thomas and Wisconsin.
"Next year with a full year of training [at outside hitter]… she's only going to be better," Butler said. "This Wisconsin team is only going to get better as they move forward."