Mirroring the strange year that has been 2020, the Watertown-Mayer volleyball team had one roller coaster of a night on Friday. The Royals got the joy of playing in their renovated gym for the first time, every player got a chance to play and they defeated a conference rival 3-0 to finish the season undefeated. But with high school sports being shut down due to COVID-19, the game against Mound Westonka would be the Royals last of the year, leading to an emotional scene when the final whistle blew.
“Even though I’ve been a part of this team since just last year, you get to know the girls so well and it’s just so heartbreaking when it’s finally over,” Libby Burns said. “But we ended on a good note, so that’s a good thing.”
During any other year, the undefeated and No. 4 ranked Royals would be preparing for the postseason and a possible run to the state tournament, but the pandemic came calling again and ended their season. This last week saw a day that many teams across the state had prepared for, but hoped would not come to fruition. After the season was postponed until the Spring, then moved back to late Fall with games under constant threat of being cancelled, the season was officially ended with just days left in the regular season. But the one blessing of not knowing what would happen, the Royals made the most of every practice and every game, leading to an undefeated season.
“[This season was] unexpected because we had so many moments where we were like, ‘Are we going to play, are we not going to play?’” said Burns. Then we got to play and it was amazing. I’m so glad that we ended up where we are right now.”
Yet despite all of the inconsistencies of this Fall season, the Royals have been more consistent than ever. Watertown-Mayer went 12-0 on the year, losing only five sets compared to their 36 set wins and never lost more than one set in a game, including a series sweep of a top-10 ranked opponent in New London-Spicer.
“They just fought through because we’re here and they were so thankful and grateful to be here,” said coach Andrea Raser. “They just played as a team, they were consistent all season long and they deserve to be undefeated.”
And much like the season looking like no other, the Royals were made up of a team like no one else. Every player was different, yet provided the perfect recipe for success.
“Our motto this year that we are trail mix, because we are such a different bunch of nuts and seeds and crazies, which is great because they go out there and come together perfectly,” said Raser. “They are all so different but come together to make the perfect mix.”
That mix provided a fun year for the Royals despite all of the distractions away from the court. With how talented and dominant they were in 2020, Watertown-Mayer was able to get every player on the court.
While the players were all different, they came together as one unit, with their favorite matches being the ones where everyone got to play.
“[A moment that sticks out is] our Howard Lake game, where everyone got in,” said Kate Thibault.
So despite a year that did not allow them their usual tournaments or postseason runs, the Royals made 2020 a season to remember, succeeding on the court with an undefeated season where everyone played a part.
“[An undefeated season] doesn’t happen very often, it’s something these girls can take away that they will never forget,” said Raser. “The COVID season where so many things went wrong, but this season went so right.”
Watertown-Mayer 3 Mound Westonka 0
With the news coming down that high school sports would shut down after Friday, the Royals crammed one last game into their schedule and put together a great performance despite knowing it would be their last match of the year.
“It was hard because they knew it could be pulled at anytime and we fought really hard to get this game tonight, so we could be on the court, so they could play one more time, play the final game of the season, play as long as possible and it just meant so much for them to be able to play one last game together,” said Raser.
And with their dominant performance (25-13, 25-22, 25-16), every player got a chance to rotate in to play Friday night.
“That doesn’t happen very often, especially when you have 14 girls, but they worked really hard to put themselves in a position to let their teammates play,” said Raser. “This team is so proud and happy when their teammates go in and they root for them the entire time because they want them to succeed.”
The one problem with getting everybody in, was that there fewer chances for the Royals to make a play on the ball, as Libby Burns’ serve game was on fire. The sophomore outside hitter finished the game with five aces while keeping the Whitehawks from returning the ball on numerous occasions.
“Libby did great serving the ball today, it was just fun,” said Raser.
While Burns did her best to end plays early, Kate Thibault did her best to keep the plays alive. The sophomore libero led the team with 17 digs, diving all over the place to keep the ball from hitting the floor.
“Kate never loses energy, she just has it all the time and that’s just because of her desire,” said Raser. “She just wants to go out there and play. She wants to make sure that ball is playable every time and does it for her teammates and just loves the game.”
And as if she does not expend enough energy between the whistles, Kate Thibault is always the first one to leap to the rafters when cheering on her teammates.
“It’s all the adrenaline, it just gets to me, I cant help it,” she said of celebrating her teammates’ play.
While Kate Thibault led the back row, her sister Paige led the attack at the net with 17 kills, getting a boost from Natalie Ernhart’s 26 sets. That trio has been a big part of the Royals success, with each surpassing the 1,000 milestone in their respective statistical categories, while the rest of the team has found their roles to flesh out a dominant unit on the court.
“Having my sister a senior outside that just crunches the ball, Natalie playing 2 years as a varsity setter and me in the back row, it’s a perfect mix,” said Kate Thibault. “Everyone filled in the other spots and made it a real successful season.”
Burns and Ashley Olson joined Paige Thibault on the attack with seven kills each, while Mallory Czinano added four more.
Eleven Royals had digs in the win – Kate Thibault (17), Ernhart (10), Paige Thibault (7), Libby Burns (7), Emily Burns (5), Alaina Burns (2), Ashley Olson (1), Arisa Intlekofer (1), Czinano (1), Jenna Bauer (1) and Hailey Schrader (1).
And at the end of the game, the results was the same as the last 11 games for the Royals – a victory. There will be no section tournament, no state tournament, but the Royals finished the season undefeated, a claim few can make.
“Since COVID kind of ruined our plans, we wanted to do so many other things, but [an undefeated season] was our goal from the beginning,” said Libby Burns. “So it was good to follow through on that and finish it.”