By Dennis Punzel for VolleyballMag.com
Izzy Ashburn and Julia Orzol will never forget their first meeting.
It was in the summer of 2019 and Ashburn was an incoming freshman on the University of Wisconsin volleyball team, trying to get to know her new teammates and carve out a role on the team.
Orzol likewise was a new member of the Polish Junior National team, playing her first match against the Badgers in Maribor, Slovenia, one of the stops on Wisconsin’s European exhibition tour.
Orzol was playing the right side and on one of her first swings she sent the ball toward Ashburn, who was in as a defensive specialist.
The two were reminiscing about that play recently as the Badgers prepared for another European tour, a 12-day trip that begins Friday.
“You hit me in the face,” Ashburn recalled.
“That’s how true friendship starts,” Orzol replied.
That trip also was the start of a remarkable run for the Badgers, who would go on to win the first of four consecutive Big Ten Conference championships that fall and advance to the championship match of the NCAA tournament in the first of three consecutive trips to the natoinal semifinals.
Coach Kelly Sheffield is hoping that this year’s trip, which will take them to Istanbul, Türkiye; Venice and Milan, Italy; Maribor, Slovenia; and Zurich Switzerland, can help set the tone for another season of high expectations.
“There are so many benefits if you max it out,” said Sheffield, who is entering his 11th season as the Badgers coach. “The easy thing is the benefit of two weeks of practicing and two weeks of competing. We’ll get anywhere from five to seven matches in while we’re over there and that’s a really important time if you’re utilizing it correctly. There are opportunities for playing time and roles to expand.”
This time should be particularly beneficial to several players, including outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara, the Northwestern graduate transfer who just joined the team at the start of offseason workouts, outside hitter Sarah Franklin, who practiced but did not play in any spring matches, and outside hitter Ella Wrobel, who played sparingly as a freshman and sat out the spring season with an injury.
NCAA rules allow teams to take foreign trips every four years and Wisconsin is just one of a number of topflight programs that are taking advantage of that opportunity. Sheffield sees it as part of the Athletic Department’s investment in its volleyball program and its players. The bill for the trip, which includes about 40 people, will be about $200,000.
Sheffield sees the tour as providing benefits on multiple levels, from building team unity to expanding cultural understanding to providing a glimpse of what might lie ahead for players who aspire to playing professionally overseas someday.
“The trip is part of a lot of things,” Sheffield said. “First, is your school and program all the way in or not? If you’re following this program, it’s all the way in at trying to win at the highest level but also to give experiences to our players at the highest level.
“One of the things we talk about in the recruiting process is that if at the end of four years you’re just a better volleyball player, then it feels like we’ve failed you. Combining play and fun and learning is what college should be and these trips have each of those elements wrapped up into an experience that they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”
The tour is organized by Tim Kelly and his company, Bring It Promotions, which has been setting up such tours for nearly 30 years. Once Sheffield selected his desired destinations, Kelly took responsibility for the details, reserving hotels and arranging for opponents and facilities for matches.
Maribor, Milan and Venice are repeat destinations on this trip, but Istanbul is a new one. That was an obvious addition with the presence of libero Gulce Guctekin, from Istanbul, on the Badgers roster.
“It’s a place we thought about four years ago but it was a no-brainer with Gulce here,” Sheffield said. “Some of the best pro teams in the world are located in Türkiye. We’ve had (former) players who have played over there. It’s different than what we did last time but it makes sense.”
The Badgers will spend four days in Istanbul, where they are scheduled to play three matches.
Four years ago Sheffield brought in professors to teach the players about the countries they would be visiting. This time the task of educating them about Istanbul and Türkiye was given to Guctekin, who gave a 45-minute presentation that touched on the area’s history, politics, cuisine and culture. She also gave a quick lesson on common Turkish expressions.
Guctekin has only been home once since coming to Wisconsin, so she’s looking forward to seeing her family and friends and having them watch her play.
“I’m so excited,” Guctekin said. “I miss being home and I’m so excited to show my teammates around. I know pretty much everywhere so I will be kind of like a tour guide.
“I want them to see how people are very friendly and allowed to talk to them. I think the Turkish people love foreigners. They always try to teach them some Turkish things, so I hope they will enjoy this trip.”
No worries, as her teammates are enthusiastic about experiencing Guctekin’s home turf.
“I’m excited about that part,” said Ashburn, a fifth-year senior who is the only Badger who was on the previous European tour. “She’s lighting up just talking about it, getting to share her home, share her culture with us.
“We ask questions, we learn phrases and words from her but it’s going to be so different to actually get to be there and experience where she’s from and how she grew up and let her be our little tour guide instead of us showing her around. I think it’s super unique and I don’t see a lot of other teams finding a way to get to do that for their foreign players, so it’s really special.”
A tradition of these tours is to find something special to close out the trip, away from volleyball. Four years ago the Badgers went to Rome to visit the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum, among other historic sites.
This time they’re closing out the trip on a different note, attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in Zurich. That started out as something of a whim when Sheffield happened to see that Springsteen and the E Street Band would be touring Europe about the same time the team was. He checked the schedules and saw that the final concert would be in Zurich, about a three-hour trip from Milan.
He ran the idea past his wife Cathy and his director of operations Jessica Williams and got a thumbs up from each. Then he checked with Tim Kelly to see if it was even possible.
“He said, ‘Dude, that’ll be epic,’” Sheffield said. “He said, ‘I’ve done this for so long I feel like I’ve done about everything, but I’ve not done this.’ I said, ‘Can you pull this off?’ He said, ‘Give me a few weeks.’ A few weeks later he calls and says he’s got the tickets.”
Sheffield kept the concert secret from the rest of his staff until just recently and didn’t tell the players about it until the first day of practice for the trip. Recognizing that the 73-year-old Springsteen may not be at the top of the players’ playlists, he spent two sessions educating them on Springsteen’s place in the music world. They watched his interview with Howard Stern and another interview alongside former President Barack Obama one day and a selection of music videos and concert footage the next.
“The more they watched I think they just got more and more excited about it,” Sheffield said.
While there figures to be any number of memorable moments in the upcoming trip, it will be hard to match the long lasting impact of that 2019 tour. That would be the eventual addition of Orzol to the roster, as she has been a two-year starter, stepping right into the lineup as a freshman and was a significant factor in the team winning its first ever NCAA title in 2021.
Orzol never could have imagined what the future had in store for her following her fateful shot off Ashburn’s face.
“This is the moment when I realize that you cannot predict the future for yourself,” Orzol said. “I always cared about school and I always cared about volleyball. I wasn’t sure how to connect both of those worlds in Poland. So I was at a time where I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school. I focused so much on my present.”
Her first step into her future came the evening after that match as the two teams met for dinner, with the players mingling rather than eating amongst themselves. Along the way Orzol received a bit of a U.S. geography lesson, courtesy of former Badger ME Dodge.
“I thought Wisconsin was a city,” Orzol said. “I was talking with ME Dodge and I’m asking, where is your city? She was like, Wisconsin is a state and Madison is the city. So there were a lot of unknowns from the beginning.
“It was one of the first times I talked with native speakers. There weren’t a lot of times in my life where I had that opportunity before. They made it feel natural. Everybody was so embracing. I feel like that was a big factor. I don’t know if I would be brave enough to go without feeling that energy from the people.”
Sheffield probably wouldn’t mind stumbling upon another such player on this tour, but that is not part of his itinerary.
“I think if you’re going looking for that you could probably find it,” Sheffield said. “But I want to be immersed with our own team and staff and the people that are going. There are other times we go overseas to recruit and those are the missions of those trips. The mission of this trip is not recruiting. There’s nobody we’re planning on seeing over there. That’s how we approached it last time and we ended up getting a really special kid out of it.”