Early in the regular season for the Wisconsin volleyball team, freshman middle blocker Haleigh Nelson received one of the most special letters she’s ever read. It wasn’t from someone in the athletic department, it had nothing to do with scholarships and it wasn’t even from an adult.
It was from six-year-old Badgers fan Maxwell, Nelson’s self-proclaimed number one fan.
In a series of letters, the pen pals wrote about their favorite colors, their pets, Halloween costumes and even drew pictures — Maxwell drew Nelson a picture of himself in a Wisconsin T-shirt, and Haleigh drew a picture of her two dogs, Lily and Buddy, and her two cats, Baxter and Lila.
At Wisconsin’s last home match of the season against Ohio State, Nelson met Maxwell, his parents and his older sister — she said they were ecstatic that Maxwell had the chance to meet a real Badger.
Although Maxwell may be just one young fan, Nelson said his actions are part of a larger trend developing with Wisconsin volleyball.
“That one fan reaching out to Wisconsin volleyball, it may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but I think it really shows that people are caring enough to put their lives into the program and reach out to us as people,” Nelson said.
The UW Field House has historically been a powerhouse for attendance. Since 2010, Wisconsin has ranked number one in home attendance 10 times in the Big Ten and placed in the top five nationally every season since then.
However, the Field House has seen a dip in attendance and energy on match days in the past few seasons. Wisconsin hasn’t made the NCAA tournament or placed higher than seventh in the conference since 2007.
But the 13th-ranked Badgers have given the fans more than excitement this season, defeating five ranked teams, including three ranked victories at home and the first back-to-back victories over top 10 teams in program history. This season, the Field House has brought in more than 4,000 fans four times and more than 5,000 twice.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield said the heightened intensity in the home arena has been due to more than just wins.
“You can’t always control an outcome of a match,” Sheffield said. “But what you can do is you can control how you play the game — how you approach the game. We certainly haven’t won every match here, but I think the fans are continuing to come back because they’re seeing how we’re playing, how we’re playing together, how hard we’re playing, how passionate we’re playing.”
Junior outside hitter Ellen Chapman said she hasn’t seen as enthusiastic an atmosphere in her three seasons at Wisconsin. She said in the middle of matches, she is amazed as she glances up at the stands at the multitude of fans filled up to even the second deck.
Chapman said some of her favorite Field House moments come during long rallies — as the players dive all over the court and run into the stands. She thrives off of the moment when the Badgers put away the ball for the point and the entire arena erupts in a booming ovation.
“I know I definitely notice it all the time when I’m on the court,” Chapman said. “I notice what the fans are saying. They really helped me and motivate me — even in the long rallies … if we win or lose, the crowd [will] always cheer.”
Chapman said she has also noticed the increasing numbers of students at home matches, when broke college students are notorious suckers for free giveaways like pizza, free admission and cupcakes.
Sheffield said students’ support has grown since the first half of the season, and hopes the students enjoy their time at volleyball matches as a fun “pre-party” before they dive into their late-night weekend activities.
“The sound [in this place] is different when the students are here,” Sheffield said. “It’s so important that we’re connecting with the students.”
Sheffield said the Wisconsin volleyball program has likely lost some of its fan base since the team’s struggles in the past six seasons.
However, even before this year’s team became a force in the Big Ten, things were different. The team had custom-made black bracelets made for the players and coaches. Imprinted on the bracelets are the words “Bring It” and “Inspire” — mottos Sheffield said the entire team has stuck with since day one of the season.
Sheffield said part of playing inspiring volleyball is inspiring the fans that dedicate their time and invest their energy into watching Wisconsin play with intensity and purpose. Because of that, he believes that the Field House will soon return to its glory days of the 2000s when Wisconsin volleyball was winning Big Ten titles and earning trips to the national championship.
“I want Wisconsin volleyball to be that again, where fans are on top of the court, [where] it’s loud, it’s sweaty, it’s crazy,” Sheffield said. “I want people to leave here saying ‘that was one of the best college environments, regardless of the sport, that I’ve ever been to.’ I want to turn this into a madhouse.”