When Natalie Hayward was setting for the Archbishop Murphy High School volleyball team, she never envisioned herself playing on college volleyball’s biggest stage.
Yet Wednesday evening, Hayward will take the court at Thompson-Boling Arena on the campus of the University of Tennessee, quarterbacking the Lady Vols as they try to dethrone the national champs before a national television audience.
Tennessee plays its biggest match of the season when the Lady Vols host the Kentucky Wildcats on Wednesday, and for Hayward it’s an opportunity to showcase her development into a top NCAA Division I setter.
“It’s our biggest match of the season, obviously,” Hayward said via cell phone from Knoxville, Tennessee. “We say that about every match that comes, but I think everyone had this one marked on the calendar. It’s an opportunity to shake things up in the Top 25.”
Hayward, a 5-foot-11 senior who’s in her second season at Tennessee after playing her first two years at DePaul, has burst onto the scene. She started for the Lady Vols during last year’s coronavirus pandemic-affected season, but she’s taken her game to a new level this season, averaging 10.70 assists per set, which ranks 29th in the nation and is up from 9.53 last season. She’s doing other things, too, as she’s second on the team in digs (2.92 per set) and aces (0.18), and she’s even chipping in 0.93 kills per set as she’s expanded her dump game. Those performances earned Hayward three SEC Setter of the Week honors already this campaign.
More importantly, the Lady Vols are hitting a super-efficient .273 as a team, and they find themselves ranked No. 21 in the nation with a 16-4 record. That doesn’t happen without a setter playing at the top of her game.
“She’s having a great season,” Tennessee coach Eve Rackham Watt said. “She has such a good understanding of how to manage a game. That is an undervalued skill with setters. There are a lot of setters who have great releases on the ball or are super athletic and do other things. But Natalie’s ability to manage a game and understand how to win is what makes her special.”
Yet Hayward never thought she’d find herself playing in a college match between two nationally-ranked teams that’s being broadcast by ESPNU (beginning at 3 p.m. Pacific Time). Hayward, whose parents Laurie (volleyball) and Mike (basketball) were standout athletes at the University of Washington, was a multi-sport athlete growing up, and she played volleyball, basketball and softball at Archbishop Murphy. Therefore, she never thought of herself as a Power Five conference athlete because she didn’t put all her time into just one sport.
Therefore, Hayward chose a mid-major school in DePaul. She started her first two seasons there, but the Blue Demons didn’t have a lot of success (19-40 combined record), and Hayward decided it was time for a change.
“I wanted to be able to run and lead an offense, and I wasn’t in a system where that was going to happen,” Hayward explained. “It was more of a 6-2 offense where you have two setters playing, and I didn’t foresee that changing in the future. I wanted to go somewhere where the head coach believed in me, that I could be the person to run the court.”
Hayward entered the transfer portal in December of 2019 and began reaching out to schools. But one school did the opposite and reached out to her unsolicited. That was Tennessee.
“We knew we were going to be looking for another setter because we only had one on our roster at the time,” said Rackham Watt, who is herself a setter and who runs the type of 5-1 system Hayward was seeking. “I didn’t know anything about her, but I saw her name on the portal, I watched some film of her playing that season, and I was really impressed with what she did. She was playing in a 6-2 mostly at DePaul, but I saw a little of her in a 5-1 in a match at the end of the year, and the way she managed the game was what I was most impressed by.”
Hayward didn’t get to spend the spring of 2020 with the Lady Vols the way she wanted because the pandemic shut everything down, and therefore she wasn’t yet up to speed for the 2020-21 season as Tennessee just missed out on the NCAA tournament. Therefore, the past summer was her first chance to put substantive time into her development while at Tennessee, and she stayed in Knoxville over the summer to train extensively.
“I think my development was almost backwards when I got to college,” Hayward said. “At (DePaul) there was not a lot of technical training, it was more game planning, how to set an offense, game flow and stuff like that. When I got to Tennessee I had to break all that stuff down and worry about my footwork and technique and how to get to the ball. I had an understanding of how to run an offense, but my fundamentals were not where they needed to be to play Power Five volleyball. So I spent the summer working on the fundamentals to make sure my foot speed was good and I was able to get to more balls with my hands.”
The hard work paid off, both for Hayward and the Lady Vols. Now they hope it pays off Wednesday against a Kentucky team that is undefeated in SEC play and ranked No. 5 in the nation.
“We’re going to have to serve and pass really well and have a high hitting percentage,” Hayward answered when asked what it would take to beat the Wildcats. “They have some really good attackers on the other side and it’s going to take really clean volleyball to win this match.”
But Hayward has developed into the kind of setter who’s capable of leading Tennessee to the upset.