Ella Foti jokes that she still gets nervous at times during Madison Edgewood girls volleyball practices.
And why not? The Crusaders' senior setter often has to go up against talented teammate Natalie Ring, a junior outside hitter who eventually will join Foti on the Marquette University volleyball roster after finishing up at Edgewood.
Foti and Ring are nearing the apex of their COVID-19 season, as Edgewood takes on Wautoma in a WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lake Mills High School. If the Crusaders win, they'll play in a sectional final at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lake Mills.
The two leaders, along with the rest of the 12-1 Crusaders team, have so far achieved their lofty list of preseason goals.
“We came in hoping for a state title and are pushing for that,” Ring said. “We brought back almost all of our starters from last year, and we're really pushing to bring a state title to Edgewood.”
Edgewood has made seven state tournament appearances, the last in 2013. Despite six trips to the championship match, the Crusaders have yet to capture a state championship.
Foti and Ring have grown together to create a fierce duo. Foti leads the team in assists with 229; many of those sets have gone directly to Ring, who leads the team with 167 kills.
“Any setter-and-hitter dynamic is pretty back and forth,” Ring said. “Ella and I have gotten to a point where we understand each other. She is able to see things with my approach and my arm swing that I can’t always see or feel when I’m swinging, and I’m able to help her with the setting and where I want it. Over the years, we’ve been able to figure it out.”
“It’s been really fun getting to know her tendencies,” Foti added. “A lot of the time I am usually in trouble (and) it’s not usually a perfect pass. But she’s usually calling for the pipe and that’s definitely one of her best hits. It’s been fun playing with her because she has such an arm on her (and) is so competitive and hard-working.”
Though Ring and Foti have been able to excel individually, the success they focus on most is that of the team.
“One of the best things about Ella and Natalie is that they are truly team-first girls, and they realize that in order for the team to be successful and for them to be successful, they realize that every single person on our team is needed,” said Edgewood coach Eliza Zwettler, who has been with the program for 11 years and has watched each grow on the court and as leaders.
“The two of them both have incredibly hard work ethics. In practice and around the team, you see them always trying to push the girl next to them to get better,” Zwettler said. “Sometimes it's them giving their all-out effort and others trying to follow along, and sometimes it’s Ella reminding them where they’re supposed to be.”
As dominant as they are on the court, they have been able to complement each other as team leaders.
“Ella is definitely more of the vocal leader. She’s our team captain, she’s the girl that holds every girl on the court accountable and just makes sure that everyone is playing their role,” Zwettler said. “Natalie is certainly the quiet, lead-by-example type of player. Whenever there is a big-time play that is needed, Natalie leads by example and goes and gets an ace or gets a big block. She follows through in big moments.”
Both have made sure the team knows what needs to get done — including, this year, mask-wearing and other COVID-19 guidelines — and the standard that they need to be held to in order to compete for a state title. They've made sure to hammer that home before the year started and now heading into sectional play.
“In the beginning of the year, we (asked), 'what do you guys need from the seniors to allow you guys to be at your best,'” Foti said. “We had the same meeting a year ago when the team was in a slump, but we made sure to have the meeting earlier this year to make sure we got off to a hot start.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!