Leader of the pack: Bridgewater-Emery’s Weber is Mitchell Republic’s volleyball player of the year
Julia Weber is the first player from Bridgewater-Emery to be named the Mitchell Republic volleyball player of the year.
EMERY -- Bridgewater-Emery has seen its volleyball program rise to new heights in recent years, but despite its success, it still lacked a go-to hitter.
Enter Julia Weber.
The 5-foot-7 junior isn’t the tallest player on the floor, but she launches into the air with every leap at the net and her arm resembles a cannon when the ball comes off her hand and lands in between defenders. She’s gone from a promising athlete to the powerful outside hitter coach Mary Ernster envisioned when she first saw her practice with the varsity team in eighth grade.
Now, after leading the Huskies to back-to-back Class B state tournament appearances, Weber is the Mitchell Republic’s volleyball player of the year for 2020.
“We’ve had success in the last four years, but that was something always missing -- the go-to hitter that can dominate the other defense,” Ernster said. “Having her has been huge for our team and our program. Just showing everyone what a hitter like that can do for your team.”
What it did was bring Bridgewater-Emery to the forefront of Class B volleyball. Weber attended state tournaments growing up, envisioning herself one day playing on that stage.
Instead of sitting in the stands, Weber was putting down kills the last two seasons, helping the Huskies break onto the scene in 2019 with their first state tournament appearance in program history. Their encore was even better.
Led by Weber, an all-state first-team member, B-E won its first state tournament match ever and earned sixth place. Weber finished with 362 kills, 274 digs, 37 aces and 30 total blocks during the historic season.
“It was a great feeling,” Weber said. “... This year, we were coming looking for a higher place and trying to do better. Last year, we were kind of just there and happy to be there. This year, we knew we wanted to go a little higher.”
The Mitchell Republic volleyball player of the year is selected by the newspaper's sports staff, and conducted via a point-based voting system that awards five points to the top player, four points to the second player on the ballot and so on. Weber received three first-place votes, with Winner’s Ellie Brozik receiving the other top vote. She’s the first player from Bridgewater-Emery to receive the honor, and the first junior to win the award since Mitchell’s Mackenzie Miller in 2017.
Other players receiving consideration were Brozik, Winner’s Kalla Bertram, Corsica-Stickney’s Raven Barse, Kimball/White Lake’s Kennedy Leiferman and Wagner’s Abby Brunsing.
Weber isn’t boisterous or a chatterbox. It shouldn’t be mistaken for a player lacking confidence, though. Her confidence in her ability to perform on the court, but also step up as a vocal leader this season when tasked by coaches, is what makes her successful.
As the player the Huskies turned to during close games after graduating three hitters, the coaching staff wanted to see her take a step as a vocal leader. She already shined as a role model of work ethic and volleyball IQ that has benefited everyone on the team, but in volleyball, it’s as much about the mental game as the physical traits.
“Julia is very quiet. She’s very humble,” Ernster said. “She’s not super chatty, but I think she has come out of her shell in that respect when you talk about leadership this year. She’s always been a physical leader, but this year, we saw her come a long way with being more vocal.”
It wasn’t hard for Weber to step up in that department around teammates she grew up around. She also knew it was for the betterment of the team to again reach the state tournament.
The quiet demeanor she still possesses remains an asset, too. Whether she puts down a kill or hits the ball into the net, she remains calm on the court, allowing herself to work through mistakes. With more responsibility as a six-rotation player this season, it helped Weber thrive under pressure.
“When I’m under pressure, it forces you to make good decisions and I think that really helps me,” she said.
Weber said she relishes challenges, and likes the responsibility mounted on her shoulders as the team’s go-to hitter while the defense keys on her. Part of the reason she started to enjoy volleyball more as a freshman was because of the faster pace and competitiveness of varsity matches compared to junior high.
“I like having a big role. It kind of puts pressure on people, but I like that,” Weber said. “It makes me feel like people count on me. I try to stay calm all the time, so it wasn’t too big of a deal for me. Just feeling like an important part of the team is something I like.”
Turning potential into production
While Weber’s voice has grown in the past year, Ernster knew she had a special talent waiting in the wings before she reached high school. The way she read the ball on defense, moved on the court and saw openings in the defense weren’t equivalent to most eighth-graders. By the time she was a freshman, Weber led the team in kills in multiple games from the right side, a hard accomplishment in volleyball.
As her confidence grew every year, so did her role on the team. The skills she showed as a junior-high player translated into the high school ranks. Through her junior season, it’s totaled 1,066 digs, 781 kills, 116 aces and 57 total blocks.
Even at 5-foot-7, Weber can deliver a fast spike that leaves teams scrambling. She credits her teammates’ sets and passes, but also mentioned timing and the quick snap of her wrist as ways she gets speed on her kills.
“She does play a lot taller than her stature is,” Ernster said.
She’s more than a powerful hitter. Weber plays all the way around, as she thinks a couple of plays ahead of the opposition to help on defense.
“I worked on anticipating where the ball would go,” Weber said. “Being down low and anticipating. You can kind of tell where the ball is going to go on defense, so looking for their shoulders helped me a lot.”
The front row is where her athleticism shines the brightest, though. It’s where her vertical separates her from defenders, and her vision in seeing openings leads to points for the Huskies.
Ernster likes to spread the ball around on offense. Therefore, it was never her plan to feed passes to Weber, especially since defenses often key in on stopping her, forcing Weber to find ways to avoid blocks and locate new openings.
But Weber’s ability to still put down kills even as the opposing game plan highlights stopping her is what makes her special. She’s been doing it since she was an underclassmen, and by simply playing her game, she set a new standard for other hitters on the team.
“If she’s not hitting for power, she’s very smart, so she finds holes in their defense,” Ernster said. “She started kind of doing that maybe even when she was a freshman -- definitely as a sophomore. And other girls on our team, I feel like, kind of picked up on that, too. It’s kind of teaching as she’s playing a lot of times, too.”
Along with her physical gifts, Weber tries to build a winning culture in practice by displaying her work ethic and positive attitude toward the underclassmen. She’ll have one more season to help build a foundation that’ll continue making trips to the state tournament, even when she graduates.
If Weber’s trajectory the last two seasons is foretelling, then her senior season could be one for the books. She doesn’t mention another all-state honor as a goal for her final year, rather is focused on returning to the state tournament and moving into the winner’s bracket.
“That would be really important,” Weber said. “That was a goal this year. It didn’t quite happen, but we still played good. But that’s something I really, really want to do.”
Individually, Ernster knows she’ll put in the offseason work to continue to improve to her already loaded arsenal of skills. And once the season rolls around, it’s about enjoying those abilities.
“I hope she continues to play hard. I hope she continues to get better at her skills, to grow into her game a little bit more,” Ernster said. “… And have fun her senior year. Have a whole lot of fun with all of the skills that she has.”
Here’s a look at other players who received consideration, with point totals in parentheses:
Ellie Brozik, Winner (10): Brozik has been the Warriors’ most efficient attacker at the net during Winner’s run to the Class A state tournament. Brozik, a 5-foot-8 junior outside hitter, racked up 415 kills, a .335 hitting percentage, 186 digs and 48 aces in a 23-6 season for the Warriors.
Raven Barse, Corsica-Stickney (9): Barse, a 5-foot-9 senior middle hitter, was among the Jaguars’ leaders in every major category. She led the team in hitting percentage at .242, had 191 kills, paced the team in service aces with 39, had 51 blocks and 332 digs as Corsica-Stickney went to the state tournament for the first time in Jaguars history. She also crossed the 1,000-dig mark for her career earlier this season, and added 28 kills in the state tournament.
Kalla Bertram, Winner (8): Bertram, a 5-foot-8 senior outside hitter, did a little bit of everything for Winner in reaching its third-straight Class A state tournament, finishing seventh this year. Bertram had 257 kills, 294 digs and 69 aces for the Warriors.
Kennedy Leiferman, Kimball/White Lake (8): Leiferman, a 5-foot-11 senior middle hitter, was a major reason that KWL was in the SoDak 16 for the third time in four seasons in 2020. In the WiLdKats’ 16-6 season, Leiferman had a hitting percentage of .354 with 377 kills, 65 total blocks, 64 aces and 314 digs. She finishes her high school volleyball career with 1,108 kills, 166 blocks, 189 aces and 1,050 digs.
Abby Brunsing, Wagner (6): Brunsing, one of the area’s top hitters, had 254 kills in a shorter than normal schedule for the Red Raiders and hit .317 on the attack. A 5-foot-10 senior outside hitter, she also had 28 aces and 207 digs in a 10-6 campaign for Wagner, while racking up 1,346 kills and 1,048 digs over five seasons in her career.
Previous award winners: 2001 — Marcy Jacobsen, Mitchell; 2002 (winter) — Chelaine Knudsen, Andes Central; 2002 (fall) — Chelsey Miller, Mitchell; (*Note: 2002 season switch) 2003 — Katrina Brooks, Andes Central; 2004 — Gina Baldwin, Mitchell; 2005 — Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2006 — Jena Doom, Wagner; 2007 — Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2008 — Keaya Weber, Wagner; 2009 — Jilanne Doom, Wagner; 2010 — Charlee Nelson, Mitchell; 2011 — Dana Misiaszek, Mitchell; 2012 — Taylin Alm, Mitchell; 2013 — Anna Flitner, Lyman; 2014 — Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2015 — Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2016 — Sierra Mesman, Bon Homme; 2017 — Mackenzie Miller, Mitchell; 2018 — Chelsea Brewster, Mitchell; 2019 — Taylee Indahl, Burke; 2020 — Julia Weber, Bridgewater-Emery.