WATERTOWN – They are all different in their own way. If you put the seniors on the Watertown-Mayer volleyball team all together, you get something special. You get a team that’s headed back to the state tournament for a second-straight season, and a team that does it the right way.
“They’re awesome,” Watertown-Mayer coach Andrea Raser said. “That’s the thing. They’re all so different. You have Nikki, who is the one who talks and kind of directs everybody. Then you have somebody like Vanessa, who’s the quiet and stoic one who just goes out and gets it done. She’s the calm presence. Then you have Lacy, who is such a hard worker, but she’s kind of the one who keeps them real and light. Then you have Kylie Hoese, who is a total gamer and super aggressive. With Janessa, who is in a new role, but still supporting her teammates. It’s just fun to watch them grow together.”
Those dynamics between the five seniors have the Royals back at the state tournament for the third time in school history. While the seniors are a big part of the success this season, they are quick to share that this is a team that needs everyone.
“There were a lot of seniors on the floor this year, but it wasn’t just us,” senior setter Nikki McDonald said. “It was the work of a sophomore, a home-schooled junior, and an eighth-grader. We are one team. People might look at certain players for stats or whatever, but nothing happens without the defense that they do. Nothing happens without all the work that we all do.”
That work has Watertown-Mayer right back where they want to be. After getting a taste of the state tournament a year ago, the Royals are ready to show what they can really do now that they’ve been there before and know what to expect.
“I don’t think we’re going to be as shook when we walk in,” McDonald said. “It’s a really big stage, and everybody in Minnesota knows that. Us having the experience of going back, I think that is going to be a huge part in how we play. It’s no longer a huge stage to us. It still is, but we have the experience going back. For the girls who haven’t played at the state tournament, I think that us having experience will comfort them in a way. We know what we’re doing out there, and they can just step in and do their roles.”
“I’m super excited,” senior Kylie Hoese said. “We’re ready to show them what we got this year. We have a level of comfort there knowing we were there last year. This year, we can actually do our thing and make a statement instead of being just happy that we made it.”
“It’s really exciting,” Vanessa Schroeder added. “Now we know what it’s like. We’re ready for it. We’ve just been playing together for so long. We know so much about each other.”
A familiar opponent awaits the Royals in the Class AA state quarterfinals. The Royals are the No. 5 seed, and will face No. 4 North Branch, the same team that beat them in the quarterfinals a season ago. While the Vikings beat the Royals in three-straight sets last season, the Royals are excited for another shot on the state’s biggest stage.
“They’re still pretty good,” McDonald said. “They went pretty far last year. I think it’s going to be a fun game again. When I saw the bracket and saw North Branch, I thought redemption right away. That was my first thought.”
“We know they are a good team,” Schroeder said. “Just knowing that going into it, we know we have to fight hard. I believe we will.”
With some experience under their belts this time around, the Royals will be looking to improve on their performance from last year’s appearance.
“I do believe that last year we had a few people that played ball really well,” McDonald said. “Overall, I think we were just kind of playing frantic. I do believe that they’re going to underestimate us. They beat us last year, and one of our outside hitters is out with a torn ACL. I really just don’t think they’re going to take us seriously.”
North Branch presents a tough task for the Royals as they feature one of the top hitters in the state in Cianna Selbitschka. Selbitschka caught the Royals off guard last season with her skills, but this year, the Royals are hoping to be ready.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Raser said. “It’s going to be exciting. Being able to play against them last year is a good thing for us. We kind of know that they have that awesome hitter. We know that now. We know that we’re going to go out and play great defense against her.”
“I think it’s going to come down to who wants it more,” Hoese said. “They’re No. 4 and we’re No. 5. Whoever outplays the other wins. We’re gritty and we want it.”
Whatever happens for the Royals at the state tournament, these five seniors have taken the Watertown-Mayer program to new heights. While the ultimate goal is surely a state title, there’s no doubt these seniors will enjoy their last run together.
“It’s bittersweet,” McDonald said. “This weekend is the last time we’re going to put on a Royals jersey and play volleyball for Watertown. Every good thing must come to an end, but it’s still pretty sad to know that our time playing together as volleyball players will be done after this. Hopefully, we’ll make a run and make a small town proud, and make each other proud.”
While this year’s seniors have left a legacy on the program, they’ve also left a big spot in their coach’s heart.
“I’ve been coaching this group of seniors since seventh grade,” Raser said. “They’re like a little family to me, as all the girls are. These girls, I just got to watch them grow and mature and become the team and the players they are. It’s pretty special to be a part of.”