They wear Wisconsin uniforms, but four of them are from Illinois. The coach who recruited them "resigned" after 14 years and nine NCAA appearances, but they stuck with the program.
Lauren Carlini, Annemarie Hickey, Courtney Thomas and Ellen Chapman shocked the college volleyball world when they led the 12th-seeded Badgers to a 25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23 upset of No. 1-ranked Texas in the NCAA women's semifinals last Thursday.
They even shocked themselves. Sort of.
"The fact that we did it in a very decisive way made it a lot more special," said Carlini, the West Aurora graduate and 2012 Sun-Times Player of the Year who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and an American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Second Team All-American.
"We didn't want people to say Wisconsin won because Texas played poorly," she said.
Hickey, the Sun-Times' 2009 Player of the Year from Joliet Catholic and lone senior on the Wisconsin team who will graduate in December 2014 with a degree in Sociology, liked the matchup between Texas' offense and the Badgers' gritty defense.
"I wasn't surprised at all," said the 5-foot-8 libero. "Obviously, everyone in the volleyball world knew how physical and tall they (Texas) were. But we are one of the best defensive teams in the country. We were confident that we were very capable of winning."
Although the Badgers' dream of a national championship ended two nights later in a 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 loss to Big Ten rival Penn State, Wisconsin made a lot of converts and ended the season ranked No. 2 in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Top 25 poll released Monday.
"I could not have asked for a better senior year and I am so grateful to the coaches and my teammates who helped me along the way," said Hickey, who plans to pursue coaching.
Maybe the best move that first-year Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield made after he was named to succeed Pete Waite was convincing Carlini to stay. It was Waite who recruited Carlini to Wisconsin.
"Coach Waite is a great guy and I still talk to him a lot," Carlini said. "But after he resigned, I didn't want any external contact until I knew who the new coach would be. Once coach Sheffield was hired, we talked the next day and he told me where he wanted the program to go and what my role would be."
During the NCAA tournament, some attention was focused on Carlini's stature as a freshman leading a team to the national semifinals. But anyone who follows volleyball regularly knew that she is no ordinary freshman.
"She was as close to a 'can't-miss' prospect as I have seen in my 30-plus years of coaching," said Rick Butler, Carlini's coach at Sports Performance Volleyball Club in Aurora where she won a national AAU title in 2013 with her SPVB 18 Mizuno teammates.
"After watching her in the gym on a daily basis over the past few years, it was clear she was going to be an outstanding collegiate player," he added.
Wisconsin and Carlini should be players in the national championship picture again in 2014.
In addition to welcoming back Thomas (DeKalb) and the 6-4 Chapman (Glenbrook South), they will add Taylor Fricano, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman from Palatine who followed Sheffield from Dayton, and return another Illinois product in Victoria Ito, a defensive specialist from Buffalo Grove.
"Everyone is so excited about next year," Carlini said. "Hopefully, now we will get the respect we deserve. I think we showed that a team that plays hard, plays with passion and grinds it out can be successful."
Neuqua Valley (12-5) might have been the most impressive team at the Montini Christmas Tournament despite going only 2-2. The Wildcats smothered DeKalb and Batavia and lost squeakers to Rolling Meadows (78-74) and Fremd (54-52).
"They're really impressive," Rolling Meadows guard Jackie Kemph said. "They're an awesome defensive team. Their press was so good we couldn't break it with one person. I think it was a team effort to beat the press a lot of times. They're really fast."
Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams liked what he saw.
"We just keep getting better," he said. "I'm completely and thoroughly impressed with the girls' resolve. IT will be fun to see what happens in February. I think we'll be right there. I know some people are excited about us. We're excited."
Rolling Meadows' 6-foot-1 Ashley Montanez, who split time at forward with Morgan Keller last year, has been a steady force for the Mustangs around the basket.
"Ashley has been awesome," Rolling Meadows coach Ryan Kirkorsky said. "She's a presence on the defensive boards and she anchored our zone (against Neuqua Valley) which we had to play with some of our foul trouble at the beginning of the game.
"She finished under the basket, which is what we need from her," the coach added.
Montini overcame a 30-27 third-quarter deficit and made 8-of-8 free throws in the final 40.2 seconds to defeat Fremd 59-51 in a quarterfinal of the Montini Christmas Tournament last Thursday.
"We did a better job of getting rebounds (in the second half)," Montini coach Jason Nichols said. "We gave up a ton of offensive rebounds in the first three quarters. We can't do that. I thought we did a better job of locating (Fremd's Haley) Gorecki in the second half.
"I know she finished with 24 points, but defensively we picked it up," he added. "We held them to 11 points in that fourth quarter. That was huge. We were also 14-of-17 in the second half compare to getting only two free throws in the first half. They had 18 in the first half, so it evened out."
Trinity also finished 2-2 at Montini, beating Plainfield East and Batavia before losing to Rolling Meadows (66-64) and Marian Catholic (52-22).
But a bright spot was the play of coach Ed Stritzel's daughter Patricia Stritzel, who scored 14 points while limiting Rolling Meadows' Alexis Glasgow to six in the teams' semifinal.
"I thought my daughter Patricia was great tonight," the coach said. "She did a wonderful job on her (Glasgow)."
Despite the third-place blowout, Stritzel has confidence in his young team (three seniors, three juniors, five sophomores, two freshmen).
"There are some real positives," he said. "The schedule's going to help us as long as we stay healthy. After this tournament, you know who you are and you know what your shortcomings are. But we're going to be around."
How tough was the Montini field this year?
"Our second-round, third-round and fourth-round games against Montini, Huntley and Neuqua Valley would be a championship game at just about any other tournament," Fremd coach Dave Yates said.
"I'm really proud of our kids to see that competition and step up and make plays to beat some teams like that," he added. "That's part of why we want to come here. They have a great thing going here. They have great teams and this is where you find out about yourself.
"You don't find out about yourself by beating people by 30 points that you're better than," Yates said. "You find out about yourself in these situations. I think there are a lot of positives that came out of this tournament."