The Louisville Cardinals have a new star. Tori Dilfer, the daughter of former NBA player Phil and current Tennessee Lady Vols standout Candace Parker, committed to play her college ball at UofL on Tuesday night with a promise from head coach Jeff Walz that she would be given an opportunity to break out of her post-high school slump in front of what is likely going to be one heckuva crowd.
Tori Dilfer is a professional basketball player for the Louisville Cardinals women’s team. She has an Instagram account that she uses to post pictures of her life, family and friends.
7 a.m. ET
ESPN’s Dana Lee
- Dana Lee works for ESPN as a reporter and researcher.
THE LOUISVILLE VOLLEYBALL TEAM RUNS INTO THEIR GYM A FEW HOURS BEFORE THEIR LAST GAME OF THE REGULAR SEASON. The guys are fearless because they have earned the right to be — Louisville had claimed the ACC championship two nights earlier — and at comfortable with their fearlessness because it has kept them unbeaten all season. It was never their intention to go unbeaten, but it is something that can happen to even the best teams. Louisville is an excellent squad.
Players sway to Kanye West, then TLC’s “No Scrubs” between warm-up serves. Tori Dilfer takes a seat a few feet from the net, her shoulders aligned with the bleachers. The ball is tossed by a member of the Louisville staff, and Dilfer places it in one area before moving it to another. She does this action again and over. It’s tedious in the sense that greatness may be achieved through repetition.
Dilfer’s former high school and club coach, Ron Whitmill, says, “She’s put in thousands of hours to be able to place the balls the way she does.” Dilfer told Whitmill when she was in high school, maybe even younger, that she wanted to compete for a national championship one day.
Dilfer, a fifth-year senior with the Cardinals, is on the verge of winning a national title. This, her final opportunity, has been building for years — the hours spent hammering footwork patterns into muscle memory with Whitmill inside a Northern California church gym, her transfer from TCU to Louisville, and the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 runs that followed.
Dilfer informed her colleague Anna DeBeer a few months ago that the Cardinals had a chance to win the national championship and that they needed to start talking about it right now. Dilfer has learned the value of each moment as a result of tragedy, and she wears a green ribbon around her right shoelace before every game as a reminder. Her eagerness has morphed into the urgency of the whole crew.
Louisville annihilated three top-10 teams in nine days in September. The Cardinals rose to No. 1 in the country in early November, a first in school and ACC history. They may now end the regular season 28-0 in less than three weeks. Before the NCAA tournament starts, just Notre Dame stands in the way. From there, it’s a race for firsts: Louisville has never won a national championship, and neither has any other ACC team. Dani Busboom Kelly has the potential to be the first woman to coach a Division I winner.
In other words, at the end of the bracket, history awaits. When the home is quiet and dark, Dilfer fantasizes about this. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” she explains. “Just dreaming about it isn’t enough.”
When Dilfer went from TCU to Louisville, she wasn’t given the starting role right away, but she soon proved that coach Dani Busboom Kelly couldn’t keep her off the floor. Sports Information for the University of Louisville
DILFER CAN STILL REMINISCE ABOUT her first encounter with Busboom Kelly. It was New Year’s Day in 2019, and she had just placed her name into the transfer portal a few weeks before. Dilfer, then a sophomore at TCU, has started every game during the 2018 season. She was in the top ten for single-season assists and aces per set at her alma mater. She was chosen All-Big 12 a month ago.
Busboom says, “We don’t necessarily need you.” Dilfer was informed by Kelly. “We’re pretty happy with the personnel we’ve got right now.”
“I wasn’t sure we needed another setter on our squad,” recalls Busboom Kelly, a former captain at Nebraska and a setter-turned-libero who led the Huskers to two NCAA finals and a national championship in 2006. She believes in a program based on trust, with openness as the foundation for trust, and she talks candidly. When asked what she was most happy with after the Notre Dame game — which Louisville won, by the way — Busboom Kelly begins by noting, “I wasn’t delighted with a lot.”
On the day Dilfer arrived in Louisville, Busboom Kelly informed her she had to be okay with one of three scenarios: Dilfer could earn the setter position and run the show; Dilfer could gain the setter position and run the show; or Dilfer could earn the setter position and run the show. The club may utilize a 6-2 offense, which would need another setter to share playing time. It’s also possible that she’s been beaten up.
“When she said that, it made me think, ‘Wow, that’s a program I want to be a part of,’” Dilfer adds.
Dilfer moved to Louisville for the 2019 season, and the Cardinals employed a 6-2 rotation for the first half of the season. This was a first. Dilfer was the team’s main setter at TCU. She was the sole setter on her Vision Volleyball Club squad as a high school student.
Whitmill adds, “I’ve never had another squad in my coaching career where I didn’t have two setters.” “With the exception of when Tori was born.” Whitmill would joke that no one wants to play with her, which Dilfer despised, but in reality, it was because she was so good. The following 20 setters in the Los Gatos, California, region decided to join a team where they could play and be seen by college coaches.
She now had to compete for playing time with a freshman who had been selected Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year and was a two-time PrepVolleyball All-American.
“We felt [Dilfer] had something unique the moment she arrived here,” Busboom Kelly adds. “It was only a question of figuring out where she belonged.”
Dilfer’s parents would check in with their second daughter on a regular basis. Is this truly what you’re looking for?
“Tori always said, ‘I’m OK, Mom and Dad,’ whenever we brought anything up with her. I’ve figured it out. ‘I know what I’m doing,’ says the narrator.” Cassandra Dilfer expresses her opinion. “She was simply certain that was the proper decision.”
The 5-foot-11 Dilfer had established herself as the team’s primary setter by the time the NCAA tournament got around. (The freshman with whom Dilfer had been dividing time subsequently transferred.) Dilfer claims that Louisville was always where she was destined to be, even if she ended there as a backup or sharing the setup tasks. She refers to it as a leap of faith.
After her first semester at Louisville, she received a tattoo on her right forearm. “Dry bones awaken,” it says in cursive. It’s taken from a verse in the Bible regarding revival. “God wakes up dry bones,” Dilfer adds, “and that’s what he accomplished in my life.” “It was an answer to a prayer to come to Louisville.”
DILFER PRAYS PRIOR TO EACH MATCH. It’s part of her routine: left knee pad, right knee pad, left shoe, right shoe, green ribbon tied to shoelace. Trevin, her elder brother, died when she was four years old when a virus attacked his heart. He was five years old at the time. His favorite color was green.
“I think that’s when I feel the most connected to him,” Dilfer adds. “It’s a moment when I refocus and remind myself, ‘I’m not going out there simply to compete; I’m going out there to do it.’ There’s a deeper reason for what I’m doing.”
Trevin’s memories of Dilfer are primarily outlines, with family images and anecdotes filling in the specifics. He shattered his arm once when leaping from the playground outside their Fresno home, something he did often, exclaiming “Trevin to the rescue!” as if he were a superhero. Trevin was the mediator when Tori and her elder sister, Maddie, got into a fight. When Dilfer sees a penny, she can’t help but do the same for Trevin. On her wrist, she bears a tattoo of his name.
She now realizes that the sadness never really goes away. She can sometimes speak about Trevin without sobbing; other times, as just now, she can’t.
“I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, I’d think this emotion would dissipate a little bit year after year,’” says Dilfer. “And, honestly, I believe it’s developed in the past couple of years just because I’m able to think about it and see the influence so much more than I ever imagined.”
It was difficult not to gaze at the boys in the grade above and see Trevin in them, wondering what he would be like. Would his favorite foods, ribs and root beer, still be his favorites? His family celebrates his birthday every year by eating the same dinner. Trevin could easily be seen participating in sports and excelling in whatever he chose.
“Losing someone you care about is a daily reminder that life is finite,” she adds. “Because of that viewpoint, I have so much more appreciation for what this game means to me and what it has done for me.”
Dilfer celebrated senior day, an ACC championship, and an undefeated regular season with her parents and sisters on the final weekend of November. Sports Information for the University of Louisville
DILFER’S AUNT TEACHED HER HOW TO WRAP HER HANDS AROUND A VOLLEYBALL AND PLACE IT AGAINST THE WALL OF THE FAMILY VACATION HOME IN LAKE TAHOE, NEVADA, ABOUT FOUR YEARS AFTER TREVIN’S DEATH, WHEN SHE WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD. She began accompanying Maddie to Whitmill’s weekly training sessions when she was 12 years old.
Whitmill explains, “She would actually come all decked up with her stuff.” “‘No, you’re here to coach me,’ Maddie would say. ‘She’s coming to shag.’ Tori had spent an hour standing behind a pole, collecting sets.”
Tori says: “I remember stepping onto the court every now and then while Maddie was getting water and trying to accomplish something, most likely tossing the ball to myself and getting a hit. ‘Hey, I’m quite excellent — look at me,’ I was probably trying to catch Ron’s attention.”
Dilfer estimates she did this for a year, if not more. Maddie, Maddie’s elder sister, went on to play volleyball at Notre Dame and later Pepperdine University. Delaney Dilfer, the youngest of the Dilfer sisters, just completed her freshman year at Lipscomb. They’re all setters.
Nobody in the Dilfer household enjoys losing a lot of money. “Mom and Dad weren’t exactly kind with us,” Maddie recalls. Trent Dilfer, their father, was a 14-year NFL quarterback who led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2000. Cassandra competed in swimming at Fresno State, where they met.
Board games with the family were a pain to play and were often avoided. Cornhole and half-court basketball were deemed modest enhancements despite the fact that they were both outdoor games. And what about Easter egg hunts? “Tori would be irritated if she didn’t receive the money egg,” Maddie jokes.
Cassandra and Trent forced Tori and Maddie to join up for a beach volleyball tournament as partners the summer before Tori started high school at Valley Christian in San Jose, California. A type of trial run to determine whether they could play together at Valley Christian, where Maddie would be the senior captain.
Cassandra comments, “They didn’t get along very well.” “They were yelling at each other for the most of the time.”
“As the day progressed, we became better,” Maddie adds. She believes they came in second place, but she isn’t certain since it was so long ago.
“From a parent’s standpoint, it was just like, ‘Oh my my, this is dreadful,’” Cassandra explains. Her children’s competitive nature made her worry whether it was beneficial for them. “They can be competitively harsh to one other.”
Trent, on the other hand, insisted the girls would be fine, and they were. “They’re great friends now,” Cassandra explains, “and they support one other more than anybody else.” “But, to be honest, I was apprehensive about it for a long time.”
“Tori isn’t a potato,” says the narrator. Kiraly Karch
Whitmill coached all three sisters on club and high school teams at different times. Even today, he tells his teammates about Tori’s exploits. When Dilfer missed three consecutive serves in an exercise during practice, the players joked about dubbing three missed serves a “Dilfer” from then on.
“It enraged her so much that, by the end of the year, she had become one of our finest servers. She’s the kind of child that does things like that “According to Whitmill. By the way, his teams still refer to pulling a “Dilfer.”
Other anecdotes he recounts about Tori because they are his favorites and demonstrate the kind of person he wants his players to be.
“Things were going south, to say the least,” Whitmill recalls of Dilfer’s senior season at Valley Christian. After winning the state championship the year before, the Warriors were mediocre in a brutal conference and on the verge of missing the playoffs. Dilfer was upset, and it showed on the court, as the drama unfolded in a midseason game.
After the game, Trent contacted Whitmill and apologized for his daughter’s actions, but the coach assumed the team would handle it the following day, speak a bit about collaboration and leadership, and that would be it.
Dilfer, on the other hand, began practice by apologizing in front of the squad. She’d been selfish all season, she said, but that was about to change.
“Our season really flipped around from that moment on,” Whitmill adds. “Everyone on her squad lined up behind her.” Valley Christian made it back to the state championships a few weeks later.
Louisville hit.303 during the regular season with Dilfer distributing the ball, which was the best in the ACC and placed fourth nationally. “She instills confidence in us,” adds Anna Stevenson, a middle blocker. Sports Information for the University of Louisville
DILFER’S RESPONSIBILITIES AS A SETTER INCLUDE DIRECTING THE CARDINALS’ OFFENSE AND USING THE SECOND CONTACT TO PLACE HER HITTERS IN SCORING POSITION. The sets are often blind, requiring her to trust Louisville’s hitters to be in the correct spot at the right time, all of which must be completed in a matter of seconds or less.
Anna Stevenson, a fifth-year middle blocker, adds, “There’s a lot of communication.” “She’ll hang the ball a little if I’m late. She has a great feel of what I need.”
A setter may be compared to a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football, but Karch Kiraly, the head coach of the United States women’s national team, prefers a comment from volleyball icon Mike Hebert. “It is tough to play with a potato as a setter for an entire season,” it says.
“As a setter, that means you can’t simply be this boring, silent nothing,” Kiraly adds. “You’ll need something ferocious from that individual, something powerful, calm, and dependable. Tori isn’t your average potato.”
She has won the ACC Setter of the Year award thrice.
Kiraly recalls seeing a game between Louisville and Pittsburgh earlier in the season, and he recalls her body language during a key set in particular. She had the appearance of a leader.
Kiraly recalls, “She never hung her head, never raised a white flag.” “There are a lot of little things that you might see that explain why Tori appears to have such a great affect on everyone around her,” says the author.
Exhibit A: Dilfer has led Louisville to the country’s fourth-best hitting %.
“If I hit a ball out of bounds or a block, she’ll say, ‘You’ve got the next one — I’m going to find you on this one,’” Stevenson explains. “She instills faith in us.”
Over the years, Busboom Kelly has worked with Dilfer to improve her on-court demeanor. When they first met, Busboom Kelly saw that Dilfer had the potential to be the sort of leader she desired on her team. Busboom Kelly urged Dilfer to be even better, saying, “You know it when you see it.”
“She had to go through times of, ‘This is what my natural tendency is, and here I’m learning a new way to do it,’” says associate head coach Dan Meske.
Busboom and Dilfer Kelly went through tape with Dilfer in one-on-one sessions, pointing out instances in games when Dilfer’s body language may have betrayed her. “When she was distressed, you could see it on her face and in her body language,” Busboom Kelly adds. “I believe she tried very hard on the court to be that harsh coach and understood that wasn’t going to work with this squad all of the time.”
Her emotions, both positive and negative, were a deck of cards, and she was revealing them all.
“She encouraged me to be conscious of my body language and take control of it, to really own it and use it to inspire others as well as myself,” Dilfer adds.
Dilfer spent hours studying video so she could change her body language on the court, and leadership isn’t something that came naturally to her. Sports Information for the University of Louisville
LOUISVILLE OVERCOMES Notre Dame 3-1 to finish the regular season undefeated at 28-0. Mentally, Busboom Kelly splits the season into three parts: preseason, regular season, and playoffs, emphasizing that having an unblemished record in the third and final segment means nothing. Tonight, though, the squad celebrates with an ACC trophy and players cutting the net with scissors.
They battled early and dropped the opening set, which happened just four matches throughout the regular season for the Cardinals. The bulk of their victories (twenty out of twenty-eight) were 3-0 sweeps.
“There have been instances when we’ve been down or lost a set and you just look at Tori in the huddle and you just get a comforting sensation that it doesn’t matter what’s going on right now because we know what’s coming,” Meske adds.
The Cardinals, who are currently 30-0, swept Illinois-Chicago and Ball State in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Against Thursday (1 p.m. ET, ESPNU), 16th-seeded Florida, the national runner-up in 2017, takes on coach Mary Wise, the first woman to ever coach in a national championship game.
In D-I volleyball, the last unbeaten team to win back-to-back national championships was Penn State in 2008-09. Only five unbeaten teams have won the championship since 1981, including Nebraska in 2000.
Nebraska head coach John Cook describes the situation as “brutal.” “You have this wonderful achievement in front of you, and you don’t want to screw it up. As though you’ve just purchased a nice new automobile and don’t want to get it filthy.”
Louisville, which was undefeated and ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, had a fresh new automobile. As a result, they chose to burn it.
Busboom Kelly once brought the squad outdoors for a drill. She presented the captains with three pieces of paper with ranks, which they read aloud. The lighter was given by the team’s director of volleyball operations, and the rankings were then burnt in a pail.
“It was like a carry-my-lunch-pail bucket from ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Stevenson adds. The squad stood there together, watching the ranks smolder.
A frayed notecard that Meske had been clutching onto since Dilfer dropped it on his desk during the preseason was safe from all the charred material. They were discussing a book by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, and Dilfer scribbled a quote from the book on the notecard.
Before each game, Meske slips it into his pocket along with the scouting report. During warm-ups, he leaves it on the bench for the players to see. During matches, he sometimes glances at it.
It reads, “Something fantastic is going to happen.” The term great was highlighted by Dilfer.
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Tori Dilfer is a professional basketball player for the Louisville Cardinals. She was born on July 9, 1992 in Westlake, Ohio and willed her way into the history books by being the first female to ever score 1,000 points at a single NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Reference: tori dilfer wikipedia.
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