Editor’s note: State Journal reporter Dennis Punzel chronicled the University of Wisconsin volleyball team’s rise under coach Kelly Sheffield and last season’s run to the national championship in a recently released book titled: “Point Wisconsin! The Road to a National Title for Kelly Sheffield & the Wisconsin Badgers.” Here is an excerpt from the book.
After graduating from Muncie (Indiana) Burris High School, Kelly Sheffield spent one year at Vincennes University in Indiana before returning to Muncie to attend Ball State.
That’s when he started his volleyball coaching career. And it all started with an innocent telephone conversation. Sheffield was just chatting with Patty Fuelling, a former Burris classmate who had just returned to coach the junior varsity team at their alma mater after her college playing career was cut short by an injury.
Somewhere along the way he happened to mention that if she ever needed any help she should let him know, a suggestion he vaguely recalled the next day when she called to take him up on the offer.
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To that point, Sheffield’s connection to volleyball was as a fan. Burris, under the direction of Steve Shondell, was a national powerhouse in volleyball, winning 21 Indiana state championships and four national titles over a 35-year span. As part of a small school — each class had roughly 60 students — Sheffield would go to watch matches, especially when his sister Cami was playing.
“He knew nothing about volleyball, he’d never even touched a volleyball,” said Steve Shondell. From that first foray into coaching, Sheffield was hooked. That JV team he assisted Fuelling with in 1989 went undefeated, as did the Burris varsity team.
The next year he assisted Craig Skinner with another undefeated JV team. Some 30 years later they would coach the top two seeds in the NCAA Tournament and capture back-to-back titles for Kentucky and Wisconsin, respectively.
Soon he was head coach of the eighth-grade team and also became involved in coaching with what was now the powerhouse Munciana Volleyball Club, founded by Steve Shondell.
Ball State and Muncie have long been a hotbed of volleyball, springing from the legendary Don Shondell, who founded the men’s volleyball program at Ball State and turned it into a national power in 34 years as coach. After retiring from Ball State in 1988, he continued to coach at Munciana and Burris, leading the eighth-grade team to an undefeated season in his final year of coaching at age 87. He passed away in 2021 at age 92, but his volleyball legacy lives on with his sons, Steve, Dave and John.
With people like the Shondells and Skinner, among others, the volleyball culture was alluring to Sheffield. They all shared a passion for volleyball and coaching and could sit around for hours dissecting all facets of the game. Sheffield was a sponge.
“All of them had playing backgrounds, and I didn’t,” said Sheffield. “I can’t play the game. I’m not any good. What I got into was the teaching element.
“I got on this conveyor belt and I just couldn’t get enough of it. It’s this tiny little city, and I got an Ivy League education in volleyball.”
In keeping with his approach to things, Sheffield was an active participant in that education. He would routinely attend Steve Shondell’s varsity practices at Burris, taking notes on virtually everything that was said or done.
That made a lasting impression on Shondell, who admits to a healthy skepticism about Sheffield’s coaching prospects at the time.
“With Sheff, I have to admit that when he was coaching for me at Burris I had no idea what his future in volleyball might be,” Shondell said. “I know I was impressed that he would come to a lot of varsity matches and practices and sit over there and take notes. That showed me that he had interest in the game.
“But when you’ve got a guy that has no background in the sport at all, it’s hard to really think that he’s got a great future as a collegiate volleyball coach. But he got hooked on it and he was like a sponge, soaking up information from anyone who would talk to him.”
At Munciana, Sheffield began coaching some lower-level teams. He started out with the 14-3 team (the lowest level of 14-and-under players) and then moved to the 16-2 team for several years.
While he was mentoring those young players at the game, he was also developing his coaching skills by studying the other coaches at one of the premier volleyball clubs in the nation.
For someone who had grown up in Indiana with volatile basketball coaches Bob Knight of Indiana and Purdue’s Gene Keady as the coaching ideals, it was an eye-opening experience.
Many of the Munciana coaches had come from Ball State, which was primarily a teacher’s college at the time. They brought a teacher’s sensibilities to coaching, focusing on fundamentals and building through progressions.
“At the time, Bobby Knight and Gene Keady were the dominant sports figures in the state and they would coach through their personalities,” Sheffield said. “In the Munciana gym, I would see a wide variety of coaches go about things in a different manner. Their personalities were different from those of Knight and Keady, and also different from each other.
“They all placed importance on the concepts of teaching through progressions and team building, and they all had a curiosity for learning. Despite the different ways they communicated and ran their practices, the commonality among these great coaches was that they were all teachers.”
Sheffield did not limit his education to just volleyball coaches. He would frequently go to Ball State’s University Gym and watch Rick Majerus coach the men’s basketball team, taking notes on most everything he did. When the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four was in Indianapolis, he went to the open practices and studied the methods of UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
“I really studied how people went about their craft, communicating and all those things,” he said. “It just fascinated me.”
The harsh truth that was made apparent from watching others was that their practices, even with their variations in style and even sport, were all better organized than his.
“At times, I’m sure my practices were a little helter skelter because everything was so new to me,” he said. “It was probably a mess playing for me. It took a while for the game to make sense.”
That realization just drove him harder to get better at his craft and to live up to the responsibility that comes with being a coach.
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