At the beginning of the season, there was no question about whether the Watertown-Mayer volleyball team had talent. Coach Andrea Raser was excited to return to the court with the players she knew had the potential to lead the Royals to their third consecutive state tournament. The only question was what will the identity of this team be? After all, the senior class that led the Watertown-Mayer volleyball team to prominence had moved on.
“They looked up to those seniors,” Raser said at the beginning of the season. “Now they have to realize they are the new team.”
And while there are many moments from this season that would indicate how good this team is – a conference championship, an invite to the showcase tournament, three 1,000 milestones – there may be no moment more indicative of who this team is than when they were on the verge of heartbreak.
After a 21-6 regular season and going undefeated in Wright County Conference West play, the Royals earned the No. 1 seed for the Section 5AA Tournament. Following 2 weeks off between the final regular season game and the first postseason game, Watertown-Mayer swept their first two opponents Breck and Mound Westonka 3-0 to earn a spot in the section championship game.
After winning the first two sets 25-17 and 25-22 to No. 3 seed Totino-Grace, the Royals were in danger of letting a state berth slip away, losing 25-23 and 25-17 to go to a fifth-set tiebreaker. Yet losing back-to-back sets did not get the Royals down, it only renewed their efforts.
“We know games go to five for a reason - we weren’t out of it,” McKenna McCleary said. “We just had to keep pushing through and play as a team. We all wanted it for each other because we didn’t want to stop playing with each other.”
All three captains echoed that sentiment. They are not necessarily playing for accolades or awards, they are playing for each other.
So when the game went down to the final moments after two losses, the Royals were not arguing or worried about losing, they were trying their best to earn one more game together.
“We were just talking about playing every point to the fullest, give it all you can, give 101 percent every play for your teammates,” Paige Thibault said. “And that’s how we came out with the win at the end.”
With their backs against the wall, the Royals dug deep in what could have been their last time on the court together.
“The difference was how much grit we had at the end,” Thibault said. “We wanted it so badly, and we were not going to let our season end.”
The Watertown-Mayer players fought tooth and nail for every ball to win by the slimmest of margins – 15-13 in the fifth and final set. A wave of emotion washed over them as the final ball hit the floor to send them on to the Class AA State Tournament for the third year in a row.
“It was so emotional,” Thibault said. “We all just came into the middle and started crying because this group has such a tight bond and we just didn’t want to be done. We were like, ‘This is not the night we are going to end playing with each other.’”
It is easy to say things are good when the wins are coming easy, but it means more when there are struggles.
“Because we had such a big comeback, it shows how much our team wants to keep playing with each other, how tightly-bonded we are, how much we love each other and are willing to do anything for our team,” Faith Unglaub said.
The comments go back to the question posed by Raser at the beginning of the season - not how talented this team is going to be, but what would be their identity. And on Saturday night, the Royals showed who they are.
“We’re such a close team this year, the bond we have is really great,” McCleary said. “A lot of ups and downs, but we never gave up. We stuck with it and pulled out a win. We have such a huge bond with each other - we all feel like sisters and family and we don’t want to stop playing with each other, so we’re not going to.”
So for the third year in a row, the Royals will be playing at the Xcel Energy Center in November. The Royals earned the No. 4 seed and take on No. 5 Concordia Academy Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. Win or lose, the Royals face either No. 1 Stewartville or Annandale Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. Nov. 9 would be the third round, with the consolation championship at 11 a.m., the third place game at 1 p.m. and the championship game at 3 p.m.
“It’s really exciting for us, I think for this team it’s hard-earned,” Ungluab said. “We have been wanting to go to state all season and this specific game meant a lot to us because it showed how hard we’re willing to work, how much we love each other and how much we want to keep playing with each other - it’s really meaningful and really exciting.”
The Watertown-Mayer volleyball team had 2 weeks off from competition following the regular season finale, but they did not have 2 weeks off of working hard.
“We were in the weight room every single day and were working hard, staying extra long at practices,” Madison Peter said.
But the break did have negatives to go with the positives.
“It was really good in the sense that we got to work on skills we needed to work on,” Unglaub said. “But it was hard to have 2 weeks off knowing that we have to go into a game rusty and not playing the week before.”
The Royals swept Breck 3-0 (25-20, 25-17, 25-14) in their first game of the postseason, but were not happy with the performance. However they were in control from start to finish in the next round, defeating the Whitehawks 3-0 (25-16, 25-15, 25-15).
“We got our groove back after our rusty game Tuesday, I think were back together now,” Peter said.