The stretch from late August to mid-December was a wild one for the University of Louisville Volleyball team. Despite not winning a national championship, the Cardinals reached new heights that no team in school history had gotten to. The fall was filled with sellout crowds, countless individual awards, and increased volleyball fandom in the Derby City. For the fans, it was an opportunity to unite. For star setter Tori Dilfer, it was a dream come true.
That dream was not necessarily fulfilled in the legendary 2021 campaign, but instead during the span of her career at Louisville. It’s a multi-layered one, so to define it, let’s take it back to the decision.
Dilfer transferred to the program in 2019 after playing two years at Texas Christian University (TCU). With uncertainties lingering, she decided to take a leap of faith.
“When I decided to transfer, there were no guarantees about anything when I transferred and I was okay with that, because I was willing to go on into a kind of an unknown journey,” Dilfer recalled. “Because it was this place, this coaching staff, this team, I was willing to do it. It turned out better than I could have imagined. I knew it was where I was meant to be. Even if this last season wasn’t as great as it was, it’s still a dream come true to be a part of this program and be a part of something so special.”
Dilfer’s first year in the program (and beyond) was filled with a ton of individual instruction from Head Coach Dani Busboom Kelly. However, Busboom Kelly’s coaching was directed at more than just her play on the court.
“The time and effort she and the rest of the coaching staff put into me as a leader was incredible,” Dilfer said. “Dani, in specific, because she’s my position coach, the time she put into me as a leader, was just as much if not more, as the time she put into me as a setter. And every time I went into watch film during first full year and beyond, we would watch my setting and my game overall, but then we’d also watch how I reacted to things. I think the biggest thing that we realized over time was that role is going to change a little bit. Everyone looks to me to bring consistency, and I think the biggest goal that her and I came up with for me was be that consistent.”
Another development that helped her transition to Louisville was her growing relationship with fellow transfer Anna Stevenson. The latter came to the program following the 2018 season after having started her career at Auburn. Stevenson went on to have a huge impact on Dilfer, both as a player and person.
“Coming in together as transfers and having such similar experiences previous to Louisville was something that we knew we would bond over,” Dilfer explained. “But I don’t think we ever realized that our stories would be so in line with each others’ and the growth that both of us knew needed to take place for us to do all the things we wanted to do here at Louisville. When we lived together, she would constantly leave notes of encouragement on my door, window, or mirror. She just sent me a picture of her devotional or Bible study the other day and it was so encouraging. The fact that she’s still doing that overseas is what what really shows how special she is. The relationship that’s been built over these last couple of years is something I’ll forever cherish. She was exactly what I think I needed at every moment, whether great or tough.”
Both saw immediate playing time for a squad that upset #2 Texas in Austin in the 2019 Sweet 16, and then played pivotal roles for the team in the following year. The 2020 season saw Dilfer being named the ACC Setter of the Year and also receiving All-ACC First-Team and AVCA Third-Team All-American honors.
The NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic allowed Dilfer one more opportunity to play alongside her teammates for the final season in 2021. What transpired during that three-and-a-half month stretch was something out of a storybook.
The Cardinals finished the regular season with a spotless 28-0 record and caught the nation by storm. Louisville breezed through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and got the opportunity to play at Freedom Hall in front of a extraordinary crowd for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matches.
“Our thought process was that we get to be the first volleyball team to make history here,” Dilfer said. “We get to leave our own stamp on this building that already has these incredible stories behind it. That’s the cool part of these type of seasons when you’re making history is yes, it’s awesome in that moment, but we’re also going to see the effects of that for a really long time. That’s what is so special to me.”
The team came up short in their quest at the hands of the eventual national champion Wisconsin Badgers, but Dilfer has remained grateful.
“I thought it was a great match. It was really fun to be a part of, and I can’t go back and say that I have any regrets about it. There’s probably some stuff we could have done differently. But really, I don’t think we would have changed much. I think we were really well well prepared and we competed pretty hard. I am so proud of how we competed; it’s hard to look back within your grasp, because I don’t want to end my career thinking about ‘oh, we could have done this, we could have done that.’ Obviously, I wish it didn’t go that way, but to be a part of that match was pretty special. I’m super proud of everything we did to get to that spot and one thing that we said a bunch of times in the locker room after was that the game didn’t define this team.”
As dominant as their play was on the court, perhaps the biggest impact that the Louisville squad made was in the community. In a time where it can argued that the fanbase had never been more divided, the team united the city as thousands consistently came out to support them at home matches and others tuned in from home.
“I think that was something that I think surprised all of us,” Dilfer admitted. “I think having built so many volleyball fans through this season was amazing. Seeing people coming out and enjoying themselves enough to want to come back and watch us and follow us on social media was awesome. We were a really captivating team and fun to watch, but we also have some of the best people I’ve ever met on this on this team and the coaching and support staffs. Being a part of that, especially in my last year was really special. It makes it even more exciting to now be on the other side of it and be a fan an alumni.”
In three seasons (COVID-shortened 2020), Dilfer recorded 2,675 assists and 501 digs to go along with back-to-back ACC Setter of the Year awards, multiple All-American and All-ACC honors, and three Honor Roll achievements. She graduated with a marketing degree while having minors in management and sports administration.
Dilfer will one day use her degree to hopefully work in sports, but not before she pursues a professional volleyball career. She is using the next couple months for physical and mental recovery before she looks to go overseas.
“I’m super thankful the coaches have been willing to help me out,” Dilfer said. “While I’m here, our strength coach Sean is bought in, he’s super pumped to help me out, which is so encouraging and just exciting. I’m excited for the ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to future opportunities. But I know my journey with volleyball doesn’t end here. I’m super pumped about that time in my life, and really just kind of taking some time to get ready for that. I have really big dreams; I want to play volleyball for a really long time. and in order to do that, want to make sure I take care of myself to ensure there’s no burnout or physical burnout before I’m ready to say goodbye to the game.”
In the meantime, Dilfer will continue to assist in Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) at the university alongside her mentors Tammy and Chris Morgan. She credits her relationship with God for not only being the reason she came here, but also helping her realize her purpose.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed for those big things if God hadn’t put them on my heart. I’ve always been realistic when it comes to setting goals, but I started dreaming and praying bigger because I knew that I couldn’t accomplish any of it on my own,” Dilfer said. “I don’t want to ever want to separate my faith from anything my life. And that was one of my biggest goals coming here is that my team, and everybody that we came into contact with would notice that God is doing something really special, not just in my story, but in this team, this program, and this city. The way that God has built these relationships in this program has been by far my favorite thing about being a Cardinal volleyball player. Seeing the younger girls on this team start to chase after their relationship with God and pursue him are much more meaningful than just a game.”
Dilfer’s time at Louisville, both as a player and student, have been eventful. Her gratitude for the fanbase is something that cannot be expressed lightly.
“Thank you will never be enough.” Dilfer explained. “It’s where I’ll have to start because there’s no other words I can think of right now. The impact that this city and community has made on me as an athlete, a person, and a follower of Jesus Christ is immeasurable. I never pictured myself going to a big athletic school; I always kind of liked the smaller school feel coming out of high school, because that’s what I grew up with. And when I came here, my mind completely changed because I saw the impact that a community that comes behind an athletic program has. I hope I have served this community. Well, I hope I’ve made this community proud and I’m thankful to every person that has showed any sort of support over my three years here.”
The now-former Cardinal star’s appreciation for the city is completely and fully reciprocated from the fanbase and the community. Most of the nation knows the last name because of Trent winning a Super Bowl with Baltimore Ravens. However, the city of Louisville will always remember “Dilfer” by his daughter Tori’s representation of the Cardinal volleyball program and university as a whole. Players come and go, but legends never leave.