A FEW HOURS before their final game of the regular season, the Louisville volleyball team files into its gym. The players are fearless because they have earned the right to be — Louisville clinched the ACC title two nights before — and at ease with their fearlessness because this is the attitude that has kept them undefeated all season. It was never their goal to be undefeated, but it is what happens sometimes, to very good teams. Louisville is a very good team.
Between warm-up serves, players sway to Kanye, then to “No Scrubs” by TLC. Tori Dilfer settles in a few feet away from the net, her shoulders squared up to the bleachers. A member of the Louisville staff tosses the ball, and Dilfer sets it to one precise spot and then another. She does this over and over again. It is boring in the way that greatness is sometimes manifested through repetition.
“She’s put in thousands of hours to be able to set the balls the way she does,” says Ron Whitmill, Dilfer’s former high school and club coach. When Dilfer was in high school, maybe younger, she told Whitmill she was going to compete for a national title one day.
Dilfer is close to a championship now, a fifth-year senior for the top-ranked Cardinals. This, her last chance, has been building for years — the hours spent with Whitmill inside a Northern California church gym drilling footwork patterns into muscle memory, her transfer from TCU to Louisville, the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 runs that followed.
A few months back, Dilfer told her teammate Anna DeBeer that the Cardinals could win a national title, that they needed to start talking about the possibility and they needed to start talking about it now. Tragedy has taught Dilfer that every moment is precious, and she ties a green ribbon to her right shoelace before every game as a reminder. Her urgency has become the team’s urgency.
In September, Louisville razed three top-10 teams in nine days. In early November, the Cardinals ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the nation, a first in school and ACC history. Now, less than three weeks later, they can finish the regular season 28-0. Only Notre Dame stands in the way before the NCAA tournament begins. From there it’s a pursuit of firsts: Louisville has never won a national title — no ACC team has. No woman has ever coached a Division I champion — Dani Busboom Kelly could be the pioneer.
In short, history awaits at the end of the bracket. This is what Dilfer dreams about, when the house is quiet and all is dark. “There’s so much that goes into that,” she says. “Dreaming about it, it’s not quite enough.”
DILFER STILL REMEMBERS her first conversation with Busboom Kelly. It was New Year’s Day in 2019, just a few weeks after she had entered her name into the transfer portal. Then a sophomore at TCU, Dilfer had started in every match of the 2018 season. She ranked in the top 10 in the school record books for single-season assists and aces per set. A month before, she was named All-Big 12.
“We don’t necessarily need you,” Busboom Kelly told Dilfer. “We really like the group we have right now.”
“I wasn’t sure that we wanted another setter on our roster,” says Busboom Kelly, a former captain at Nebraska, a setter-turned-libero whose teams went 124-10 over her four years en route to two NCAA finals and a national title in 2006. She believes in a program built on trust, with trust built on transparency, and speaks without pretense. When asked after the Notre Dame game what she was most pleased about — a game Louisville won, by the way — Busboom Kelly starts by saying, “I wasn’t pleased about a lot.”
On the day Dilfer visited Louisville, Busboom Kelly told her she had to be OK with one of three things happening: Dilfer could earn the setter position and run the show. The team could run a 6-2 offense, which would require splitting playing time with another setter. Or she could be plain beat out.
“Her telling me that, it really gave me a perspective of, ‘Wow, that’s a program I want to be part of,'” Dilfer says.
Dilfer transferred to Louisville for the 2019 season, and for the first part of the year, the team used a 6-2 rotation. This was new. At TCU, Dilfer was the team’s primary setter. As a high school student, she was the only setter on her Vision Volleyball Club team.
“I’ve never had another team in the history of coaching club where I didn’t have two setters,” Whitmill says. “Except for when I had Tori.” No one wants to play with you, Whitmill would joke — which Dilfer hated — but in reality, it was because she was that good. The next 20 setters in the Los Gatos, California, area chose to play for a team where they might actually get to play and be seen by college coaches.
Now she was sharing playing time with a freshman who had been named Arizona Gatorade Player of the year and a two-time PrepVolleyball All-American.
“Once [Dilfer] came here, we knew she had something special,” Busboom Kelly says. “It was just a matter of, where does she fit?”
Every so often, Dilfer’s parents would check in with their second daughter. Is this really what you want?
“Whenever we would bring anything up with Tori, she was like, ‘I’m fine, Mom and Dad. I got this. I know what I’m doing,'” Cassandra Dilfer says. “She was just always sure it was the right choice.”
By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around, the 5-foot-11 Dilfer had established herself as the team’s principal setter. (The freshman Dilfer had been splitting time with wound up transferring after that season.) Even if she had wound up a backup or sharing the setting duties, Dilfer says, Louisville was always where she was supposed to be. A leap of faith, she calls it.
She has a tattoo on her right forearm that she got after her first semester at Louisville. In cursive, it reads, “dry bones awaken.” It’s from a Bible passage about revival. “God wakes up dry bones, and that’s what he did in my life,” Dilfer says. “Coming to Louisville was an answer to a prayer.”
DILFER PRAYS BEFORE every match. It’s part of her routine: left knee pad, right knee pad, left shoe, right shoe, and then she ties a green ribbon to her shoelace. She was 4 years old when her older brother, Trevin, died after a virus attacked his heart. He was 5. Green was his favorite color.
“I feel like that moment is when I feel closest to him,” Dilfer says. “It’s a time where I center myself, and ground myself on, ‘I’m not going out there just to compete, just to do it. There’s a bigger purpose in why I’m doing this.”
Dilfer’s recollections of Trevin are mostly outlines, the details filled in with family photos and stories she’s been told. He broke his arm once, jumping off the playground set outside of their house in Fresno, which he did often, yelling “Trevin to the rescue!” like a superhero would. When Tori argued with her older sister, Maddie, Trevin was their peacemaker. He loved picking up pennies, and Dilfer can’t help but do the same for Trevin when she sees one. She has a tattoo of his name on her wrist.
The grief doesn’t really ever loosen up — she knows this now. Sometimes she can talk about Trevin without crying; there are other times, like now, when she can’t.
“I’m like, ‘Gosh, I would think that this feeling would fade a little bit year by year,'” Dilfer says. “And honestly, I think in the last couple of years, it’s actually grown at times just because I’m able to think about it and see that impact so much more than I ever thought.”
In high school, it was hard not to look at the boys in the grade above, see Trevin in them and wonder, what would he be like? His favorite food was ribs and root beer — the family celebrates his birthday every year by eating the same meal — would those still be his favorites? It was easy to see Trevin playing a sport and being good at whatever he chose.
“Losing somebody that you love, it’s a constant reminder that life can be short,” she says. “I have so much more gratitude for what this game is to me and what it has done for me because of that perspective.”
ABOUT FOUR YEARS after Trevin’s death, when Dilfer was 8 years old, her aunt showed her how to shape her hands around a volleyball and set it against the wall of the family vacation home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. When she was 12, she started tagging along to Maddie’s weekly training sessions with Whitmill.
“She would literally come all dressed in her gear,” Whitmill says. “And Maddie would be like, ‘No, you’re here to train me. She’s here to shag.’ Well, it was really just Tori spending an hour standing by a pole catching sets.”
Says Tori: “I remember every once in a while when Maddie was getting water I would step on the court and try to do something, probably toss the ball to myself and get a hit. I was probably trying to get Ron’s attention and say, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good — look at me.'”
Dilfer guesses she did this for about a year, maybe more. Maddie, three years older, went on to play volleyball at Notre Dame and then Pepperdine. Delaney, the youngest Dilfer sister, just finished her freshman season at Lipscomb. All three are setters.
Nobody in the Dilfer house likes losing much. “Mom and Dad didn’t exactly take it easy on us,” Maddie says. Their father, Trent Dilfer, was an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl ring after the 2000 season. Cassandra swam at Fresno State, where the two met.
Family board games were a nightmare and generally avoided. Cornhole and half-court basketball were considered minor improvements if only because they were outdoor activities. And Easter egg hunts? “If Tori didn’t get the money egg, she would be ticked off,” Maddie laughs.
The summer before Tori was a high school freshman at Valley Christian in San Jose, California, Cassandra and Trent made Tori and Maddie sign up for a beach volleyball tournament as partners. A trial run of sorts, to see if they would be able to play together at Valley Christian, where Maddie would be a senior captain.
“They didn’t get along great,” Cassandra says. “They went at each other pretty much the entire time.”
“We got better as the day went on,” Maddie interjects. She thinks they won second place, but isn’t sure, it was so long ago.
“OK, well, from a parent’s perspective, it was just like, ‘Oh gosh, this is awful,'” Cassandra says. She wondered sometimes if it was healthy, her kids being as competitive as they were. “They can be brutal to each other competitively.”
But Trent said the girls would be fine, and it was. “Now they’re best friends and support each other more than anybody,” Cassandra says. “But truth be told, I was nervous about it for a long time.”
“Tori is no potato.”
Whitmill coached all three sisters at various points, through club and high school teams. He has stories about Tori he recounts to his players even now. During practice once, Dilfer missed three consecutive serves in a drill, and the team made a wisecrack about calling three missed serves a “Dilfer” from that point on.
“It pissed her off so bad that she ended up being one of the best servers on our team by the end of the year. That’s the type of kid she is,” Whitmill says. Pulling a “Dilfer,” by the way, is a term his teams still use.
Other stories he tells because they’re his favorites about Tori, and exemplify the type of person he wishes his players to be.
During Dilfer’s senior season at Valley Christian, “Things were going south, to say the least,” Whitmill says. After winning state the previous year, the Warriors were average in a crushing conference and trending toward missing the playoffs. What unfolded in a midseason game had been building; Dilfer was frustrated, and it showed on the court.
Whitmill didn’t think much of it — after the game, Trent approached him and apologized for his daughter’s behavior — but the coach figured the team would address it the next day, talk a little about teamwork and leadership, and that would be that.
Instead, Dilfer opened practice by standing in front of the team and apologizing. She had been selfish, she said, all season, and now that was going to change.
“Literally, our season from that point forward just turned around,” Whitmill says. “All her teammates fell in line behind her.” A few weeks later, Valley Christian returned to the state finals.
AS A SETTER, Dilfer is responsible for directing the Cardinals’ offense and using the second contact to put her hitters in position to score. Sometimes the sets are blind, demanding she trust that Louisville’s hitters will be at the right place at the right time, all of which needs to be executed in a few seconds or less.
“It’s a lot of communication,” says Anna Stevenson, a fifth-year middle blocker. “If I’m late, she’ll hang the ball a little bit. She’s got a really good sense of what I need.”
You can compare a setter to a point guard in basketball, or the quarterback in football, but Karch Kiraly, the U.S. women’s national team coach, likes a quote from volleyball legend Mike Hebert best. Paraphrased, it goes, “It is difficult to play with a potato as a setter for a full season.”
“It means you can’t just have this bland, quiet nothing as a setter,” Kiraly explains. “You need something fierce out of that person — something strong, poised and consistent. Tori is no potato.”
She is a two-time ACC Setter of the Year.
Kiraly remembers watching a game Louisville played against Pittsburgh earlier in the season, and he points specifically to her body language during a crucial set. She looked like a leader.
“She never hung her head, never waved a white flag,” Kiraly says. “There’s a lot of little things you could notice that explains why Tori seems to have such a positive impact on all the people around her.”
Exhibit A: Dilfer has directed Louisville to the fourth-best hitting percentage in the country.
“If I hit a ball out of bounds or hit a block, she’s like, ‘You’ve got the next one — I’m finding you on this ball,” Stevenson says. “She feeds confidence into us.”
Busboom Kelly has worked with Dilfer on her on-court disposition over the years. The first time they met, Busboom Kelly knew Dilfer could be the type of leader she wanted on her team, with the potential to be a great one. “You know it when you see it,” she says, and so Busboom Kelly challenged Dilfer to be even better.
“She had to grind through moments of, ‘This is what my natural instinct is, and here I’m learning a new way of doing it,'” associate head coach Dan Meske says.
Dilfer and Busboom Kelly reviewed film in one-on-one sessions, and the coach pointed out moments in games where Dilfer’s body language may have betrayed her. “You could see it on her face and her body language when she was upset,” Busboom Kelly says. “I think she tried really hard to be that tough coach on the floor and realized that wasn’t going to work with this team all the time.”
Her emotions — good and bad — were a deck of cards, and she was showing her entire hand.
“She challenged me to be aware of my body language and take a hold of it, just really owning it and using it in a way that encourages others and also myself,” Dilfer says.
LOUISVILLE PULLS PAST Notre Dame 3-1 to end the regular season with a perfect 28-0 record. Mentally, Busboom Kelly divides the season into three parts — preseason, regular season and postseason, and she emphasizes that having an undefeated record means nothing in that third and final bit. But tonight the team celebrates with an ACC trophy, and scissors are passed around for players to cut the net.
They struggled early and lost the first set, something the Cardinals did only four times during the regular season. The majority of their wins — 20 out of 28 — were 3-0 sweeps.
“We’ve had matches where we’re down, or we lose a set and you just look at Tori in the huddle and you just have a calming feeling of it doesn’t really matter what the present is because we know what’s coming,” Meske says.
The Cardinals, now 30-0, cruised in their first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, sweeping Illinois-Chicago and Ball State. Next up is 16th-seeded Florida on Thursday (1 p.m. ET, ESPNU), the national runner-up in 2017, and coach Mary Wise, the only woman who has ever coached in a national title game.
The last undefeated team to win a national title in D-I volleyball was 12 years ago, when Penn State did it back-to-back in 2008-09. Since 1981, only five undefeated teams have won the whole thing, including Nebraska in 2000.
“It’s brutal,” Nebraska head coach John Cook says. “You feel like you’ve got this great accomplishment and you can’t mess it up. Like you have a brand new car but you don’t want to get it dirty.”
Louisville, undefeated and No. 1 for the first time, had a brand new car. So they decided to burn it.
Busboom Kelly took the team outside during practice one day. She handed the captains three sheets of paper with rankings, which they read aloud. The team’s director of volleyball operations provided the lighter, and then they burned the rankings in a bucket.
“It was like this ‘Little House on the Prairie’ carry-my-lunch-pail bucket,” Stevenson says. Together, the team watched the rankings burn into embers.
Safe from all the scorched paper was a ragged notecard that Meske has been holding onto since the preseason, when Dilfer left it on his desk. They had been discussing a book by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, and on the notecard, Dilfer wrote a line from the book.
Meske slides it into his pocket with the scouting report before every game. He leaves it on the bench for the team to see during warm-ups. He looks at it sometimes during matches.
“Something great is about to happen,” it says. Dilfer underlined the word great.