MADISON — Driving from Minot, North Dakota to the University of Wisconsin campus takes about 12 hours.
The Our Redeemer Christian School volleyball team has been there four times to participate in team camps run by the Badgers.
Coach Kara Nunziato and the 60-student private school players could save an hour’s drive if they head south to camp in Nebraska. That’s four hours less to go camping in Minnesota, which they tried for a year.
But what they found in Madison is a deeper connection to the sessions, Nunziato said.
“They have a lot of extra details that make the camp special and memorable for the team in terms of social and off-field sessions,” Nunziato said. “As much as we want to improve our skills, we also want to improve how we function as teammates and players to build a volleyball team.”
A decade ago, Badgers volleyball camps were popular, but not the top revenue generator among UW sports. These were men’s basketball and men’s soccer.
The milestones that have since occurred help explain why volleyball is now by far the largest UW camp by revenue, bringing more than double the closest team in the most recent available numbers.
Kelly Sheffield came into coaching in 2013 with the mantra of having the best in everything: the best service technique training, the best nutrition, the best camps.
UW coaches have brought in their high school and club counterparts for clinics that serve as a recruiting tool for team camps.
The Badgers’ visibility in Madison took off with three consecutive Big Ten championships and the 2021 breakthrough of the team’s first NCAA title.
Crowds at the Field House have grown, and UW has responded to growing demand by investing in the 91-year-old venue to make it more accessible. Young fans connect with players before and after games to help build a connection.
It comes full circle when these kids, some as young as 4, come to camps that introduce volleyball to younger players and work on position-specific skills for more advanced players.
There were 684 volleyball campers of all ages in 2013. The number peaked at 2,273 just six years later before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted operations in 2020 and 2021.
The growing popularity of the UW volleyball team and increasing camp attendance went hand in hand.
“I tell our coaching staff that my goal is for every one of these kids you interact with here to want to go to a game in the fall, whether they get there or not,” the associate head coach said. of the Badgers, Gary White, who runs the volleyball camps. . “And my goal for kids coming to a game in the fall is for them to come and interact with us more in the summer.”
Teaching on, off the pitch
One weekend in July, 28 Midwestern high school teams gathered in Madison for two-day sessions. On Sunday afternoon, four courts inside the on-campus Nicholas Recreation Center and two more in the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion at the Kohl Center alternated to produce booming serves, loud shouts and quick breaks for pointers camp coaches and instructors.
Another team was participating in an off-court session where UW coaches and the instructors they bring in to work at the camps pass on their knowledge, go through video and develop their social skills. These out-of-court discussions, some led by Sheffield, touched on the importance of building communication and building trust.
“You’re just talking about being a better person to create a better athlete or a better player,” White said.
UW player Izzy Ashburn steps down from the referees’ podium after a game at the Nicholas Recreation Center to reunite with the Quincy Notre Dame team from Illinois.
His coach, Courtney (Thomas) Kvitle, was an All-American outside hitter for the Badgers as a senior in 2014.
“There’s a reason people want to come here,” she said. “They are just winners. They train and push that a lot.
Being surrounded by the defending national champions also helps, Kvitle said. Not that she wouldn’t have brought her team to Madison anyway; they came three times with Kvitle, in 2018 and 2019 before COVID-19 curtailed things the previous two summers.
“Being a former player, I love bringing my team here,” she said.
There were high school teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota and Missouri among the 13 participants in the second of the two-day camps.
Working closely with college athletes players have seen on TV empowers school-aged players at team camps, said Chris Fitzgerald, national analyst for volleyball scouting site Prep Dig. .
The way UW coaches Sheffield, White and Brittany Dildine run their camps is an invitation to what it takes to be a championship-level program.
“They’re so transparent about what they’re doing,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s almost like you’re living backstage with the Badgers.”
Like those for all other UW sports and those for cheerleading, dance, and strength and conditioning, the volleyball camp is run under a centralized structure with a common management system, Badger Sports Camps. UW implemented this in 2013, unifying what was until then a set of different managers for each sport, usually tied to the head coach.
There’s a recruiting component — both in players wanting to be seen and coaches wanting to see players — in some of the camps, but UW director of camp administration Tracy Chynoweth , said it was a small part. A more important element is to make a good first impression for the university on potential future students.
“A lot of our kids stay in our dorms, eat in our dining halls, use our sports facilities, and navigate campus in different ways,” Chynoweth said. “And if they have a positive experience in a youth program and start thinking fondly of university, obviously there are other benefits of being a world-class research institution.
White, who came to UW with Sheffield from Dayton in 2013, begins planning volleyball camps in the weeks following the end of the Badgers season in December. He has employed over 200 different camp instructors over the years.
The coaching clinic, now in early spring, has about 200 attendees from high school and club teams. Little Badgers camp for ages 4-8 and Junior Badgers sessions for ages 8-11 usually draw hundreds in late May or early June.
Other openings have specific position instructions for girls entering grades seven through 12. One side tries to mimic the training and development opportunities the way Badgers players do.
Prices in 2022 ranged from $65 for a one-day service camp to $415 for a two-day individual camp with an overnight stay in a UW dorm.
UW revenue from volleyball camps peaked at $658,137 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to NCAA financial reports. The next closest sport was men’s soccer ($314,720).
The team camp in mid-July brought together almost 40 teams over several sessions at its peak.
“If you’re just looking for someone here to be a drill sergeant for your team, this probably isn’t our camp,” White said. “We want them to grow. We want you to learn something. But team camp for us is the start of your fall season. This is not the end. It’s not you trying to win.
“They got to work”
Chynoweth said the success of UW volleyball camps is tied to the success of the team.
“Whatever they do,” he said of the Badgers coaching staff, “it’s really important to them to do it well, whether it’s recruiting or camps or competing on the field. or competition in class. …
“For lack of a better way to put it, nothing is wasted in anything they do, whether it’s a training clinic, a youth camp, a recruitment. They just really try to be really good and create really positive experiences. And I’m not surprised that they succeed in everything they do. They get down to business and they care about people.
Our Christian Redeemer from North Dakota had nine players in Madison this summer to absorb lessons on and off the court from Badgers players and coaches.
It’s a small school but that doesn’t affect players’ desire to improve, Nunziato said. That’s the impetus for the long drives and why they kept meeting up in Madison.
“I truly believe that for athletes to play at their highest level, they have to see and experience volleyball at the highest level,” she said. “So coming to Wisconsin, we’ve always had incredible support from the coaching staff here and even the Badger players to come in and give life lessons. So the team just takes the program to the next level. .