WATERTOWN – Sophomore setter Natalie Ernhart knows what the state tournament is all about. She saw some action during last year’s state tournament run, playing behind senior Nikki McDonald.
This year, Ernhart has taken over the setter position all by herself, and her emergence has the Royals back at the state tournament for a third-straight season despite losing five key seniors from last year’s team.
“Last year, I was younger and I felt more disconnected with the team just because I was so much younger,” Ernhart said. “This year, a lot of the older girls have really led the younger girls. It’s nice to know those girls have our backs, and I feel like everyone has each other’s backs.”
Coming into the state tournament, Ernhart has already recorded 846 assists this season. Now that she’s the full-time setter for the state-bound Royals, she’s developed chemistry with all of her hitters, and it’s been working well for W-M this season.
“I feel a lot closer with them,” Ernhart said. “I’m not in-and-out, and they’re not used to a certain person and then it’s me. They’re used to me. It’s nice because they know my setting style and I know their hitting style. It helps a lot.”
Ernhart has been a huge piece for the Royals’ success in 2019. While there were several players stepping into bigger roles this season, Ernhart and the Royals have believed in themselves all year long, and it’s paid off.
“I think it’s something we knew as coaches they could do once they realized that they’re a different team,” W-M coach Andrea Raser said. “You’re the Royals volleyball team for 2019. They stepped into that role and accepted that. We’re the real deal now. Once they figured that out, they’ve really just continued to shine and play on.”
The Royals are the No. 4 seed in the Class AA state tournament. They’ll take on No. 5 Concordia Academy in the first round, a team they met earlier this season. While the Royals have beaten the Beacons once already this season, Ernhart and her team know how much things can change as the season goes on.
“We played them in a tournament and beat them in three,” Ernhart said. “It was a battle. We’ve watched tape on them and figure out how we can get around some of our obstacles we had against them. We’re all really excited.”
Ernhart will be one of few players who will step on the court with state tournament experience for the Royals this year. While she knows what it is like, she’s already showing her leadership, as she has all season long, by offering some advice to the younger players who will experience the state tournament for the first time.
“To not take it as serious as it needs to be,” Ernhart said her advice was. “It should be fun. It shouldn’t be so serious that you’ll be nervous for it. It should be our game, and it’s for us. Not for the fans. Not for anyone else, but us. It should be our game completely.”