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Volleyball seniors and Division III champions take life lessons from the game

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: From left, UW-Eau Claire volleyball seniors Kendra Baierl, Taylor Scalia and Makenzie Bachmann will graduate on Dec. 18, taking with them Blugold degrees as well as a shared title of DIII national champions.

For the trio of senior Blugold volleyball players and NCAA Division III national champions graduating this week, the script for their remarkable senior leadership roles could not have been written much better.

Back row defensive specialist Taylor Scalia dug deep, play after play, to get the ball to front row powerhouses Makenzie Bachmann and Kendra Baierl. This is what the game is all about, and these three athletes and best friends played it to near perfection.

Perfection also seemed scripted by the team mantra from day one of the 2021 season practices:

“We relentlessly pursue excellence in all that we do.”

As head coach Kim Wudi describes, these seniors exemplified that team mission and helped lead the team to the ultimate dream of a national championship trophy.

“It’s not just about winning volleyball matches or championships, but about building and sustaining a championship culture in the classroom, on campus, in the community, in relationships — everywhere and always,” Wudi says. “These three women modeled a commitment to the process of becoming great and expected the same from each of their teammates.”

Stay on for another season? ... Absolutely

Blugold volleyball game in St. Louis

Senior Makenzie Bachmann, No. 11, makes a strong outside hit against Calvin University in the DIII finals.

Bachmann, Baierl and Scalia played their entire college careers together, all starting as first-year students in 2017, and taking some significant team highs and lows together.

They fell just points short of playing for the national championship in 2018, struggled to meet their own expectations for the team in 2019 and then lost out on the 2020 volleyball season entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having the chance to play their lost senior season together was an opportunity none of them were going let slip away.

“From pretty much the minute we found out 2020 was canceled, we committed to sticking around for one more season,” says Bachmann, an English education major from Chaska, Minnesota. “You only get one senior season, and to have it robbed from us? We all knew immediately we were going to come back.”

With just some minor adjustments to their academic plans, the women each turned the extra semester of courses into either a second full major, a minor or an added certificate.

Baierl, a double major in marketing and psychology from Marshfield, took the opportunity for added classes to bump her minor into a psychology major, which she said was something she always had wanted to do.

“I always knew I wanted to work in business,” Baierl says. “I enjoy working in teams and with people, and business is a dynamic field which suits my nature. I chose the psychology minor after a consumer behavior class had really interested me, then made it a second major when we stayed for a fifth season.”

Blugolds block a hit by Calvin in volleyball

Senior Blugold middle hitter Kendra Baierl, No. 10, blocks Calvin at the net in the St. Louis DIII national final match.

For Scalia as well, the decision to stay to play was instantly made. The information systems major from Stillwater, Minnesota, says she would not have regretted her choice even if the Blugolds had not won the championship.

“It didn’t feel right to just give up in that moment,” Scalia says. “When I decided to stay, I added a minor in marketing and certificates in organizational communication and digital marketing analytics, which gave me the fall credits needed to play. Even if the season had not gone the way it did, I would not have regretted staying. I would have always had a ‘what if’ feeling if I hadn’t played my senior season.”

Lessons taken from the court to life after college athletics  

The champion Blugold women’s volleyball team had a total of eight seniors on the team, the rest of whom will graduate in 2022. Bachmann, Baierl and Scalia all say repeatedly that the success in the NCAA final was a total group effort from all players. Even the sideline energy throughout the NCAA tournament, Scalia notes, was an advantage for them.

“Our sideline was the loudest, most engaged sideline of any team we have ever played — we could feel it, we could see it,” Scalia says. “That team chemistry brought us energy and confidence in every game. They were one of the biggest reasons we won.”

“Team mentality and confidence from every single player made all the difference for us,” Bachmann says. “Even in the toughest match against Juniata, we all just felt like ‘we can do this.’”

Volleyball game, Blugolds in national championship

Senior defensive specialist Taylor Scalia, No. 3, goes for another return of serve in the DIII championship match in St. Louis.

All three of these seniors credit Wudi and the rest of the coaching staff with setting the bar and creating the culture that set this team up to pursue and win a championship. And all of them say they appreciate the elements of that coaching style they will use in their lives.

“I know I wouldn’t be the person I am without Kim and the other coaches in my life,” Baierl says. “I’m so grateful for the time they each invested in me and the ways that their belief in me allowed me to grow.”

For Bachmann, what she sees as the biggest lesson from her coaches and volleyball experience was to learn the “power of her own potential,” which she now sees will carry into the rest of her life.

“As a freshman, I came in scared, not confident in myself at all,” she says. “Kim pushed me, challenged me and put faith in me to lead. She’s taught me never to doubt my own abilities, far beyond my physical ability. I’ll be able to tap into that inner strength for the rest of my life.”

As Bachmann, Baierl and Scalia take their Blugold degrees and find the career path they say they know is waiting for them, all three agree that playing college volleyball was an “experience of a lifetime” that will benefit them well into their futures.

In fact, carrying on with excellence in coaching already has begun, as Bachmann and Scalia have paired up to coach a youth girls travel team in western Wisconsin.  

“We are incredibly excited to share our volleyball knowledge and experience with our girls, and we look forward to this new perspective of the game,” Bachmann says.