WILLMAR — Tayler Schmidt loved volleyball, but then hated it.
After playing junior varsity her junior year at Paynesville High School and being cut her senior year, it looked to be the end of the defensive specialist’s career in the sport.
At least, that’s what she thought.
After a lot of convincing from the Ridgewater volleyball coaches and Schmidt’s childhood best friend and current teammate Madi Leyendecker, Schmidt has returned to the sport with the Warriors this fall.
Ridgewater has a big Minnesota College Athletic Conference match with Rochester at noon Saturday. Rochester is ranked No. 3 in the country in NJCAA Division III. The Warriors on Wednesday travel to Century College in White Bear Lake.
She came into this week’s schedule ranked ninth in NJCAA D-III in digs-per-set, recording an average of more than five digs each set.
The 5-foot-3-inch, 19-year-old has also re-developed that love for the game.
“Every point I'm thinking: ‘I need to get the first ball, or I need to get this ball, or that’s my ball,’” she said. “It makes me feel amazing. I never thought I’d be this person to be out there and so high on the chart.”
Warriors’ volleyball coach Amanda Bohlsen credited Schmidt as being a gift to the 2021-22 team.
“She is one of the hardest working players I have ever had the privilege to have on my court,” Bohlsen said. “She is the hardest person on (herself) that I have ever experienced in the best way … she is all about team wins and team everything.”
Love of volleyball
Schmidt began playing volleyball in elementary school at Paynesville and quickly developed a love for the sport because of its teamwork and the need for quick thinking.
It was also during this time that Leyendecker and Schmidt became close friends, which eventually turned into best friends.
“I am so blessed to have her as my best friend,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know what I would do without her in my life. Especially on the court, me and her just click. Even if we do something wrong, me and her talk about it and we just adjust right away. Then the next point we’re there every time and it’s just amazing.”
Schmidt says the two have always been teammates.
“I never played without her, even in middle school. Me and her got bumped up to upper levels. Just me and her together and ever since then we’ve just had this special bond together,” she said.
Leyendecker is the Warriors’ 5-7 19-year-old setter. She explained what it’s like having that bond again on the court.
“We’ve always been there for each other,” Leyendecker said. “In sports, we just connect so much more and we just have a strong connection. In sports, we know what to change and how to help the team win.”
Leyendecker also came into this week ranked 14th in NJCAA D-III in assists with an average of eight assists-per-set and having just notched more than 300 assists total.
“I just kind of look on the court and look for open spots, know who my consistent hitters are, who I can trust to get the kill for us each time,” she said.
While the two share a strong bond off the court, both share a competitive edge on the court.
“They have really worked hard to be best friends, but have worked really hard to make sure that they feel that they are not closing each other off or others off from them,” Bohlsen said.
After playing stronger competition in middle school came the challenge of preparing for the chance to one day play varsity volleyball.
Leydendecker went on to eventually compete in varsity volleyball.
The same could not be said for Schmidt.
Schmidt went on to explain what transpired in high school.
“My 11th grade year, basically, it was all about, like I don’t want to say rude or anything, but my school was all about last names and it was hard,” she said. “(Junior varsity) season we had a completely different coach. She was amazing. She believed in anyone who could play, just like (coach Bohlsen).
“Our varsity coach told her: ‘I want another girl to be libero’ but then our JV coach was like: ‘No, I’m putting Tayler.’ So then I ended up playing libero my 11th grade year in JV.”
During this time, unwanted tension began to impact Schmidt’s view of the game.
“I had so much love and passion for the game. But there were just so many obstacles that came about which made it hard for me to keep going and push myself,” she said.
Schmidt was then cut her senior year.
The heartbreak made Schmidt hate the game she once loved.
“It made me really not ever want to play it again,” she said.
Following graduation, Schmidt did not go looking for the game of volleyball.
“I had no intentions. I was like ‘I am not playing any sports in college, especially volleyball,” she said.
However, volleyball was looking for her.
Come back, please?
When Bohlsen was hired as Ridgewater’s head coach, the list of players consisted of Morgan Mandel, the lone returner, Grace Garoutte, Coral Matison and Haylee Johnson.
Leyendecker was recruited as a setter.
Bohlsen added Kristinn Edwards as her assistant coach. Both are Ridgewater alumnas, and began recruiting.
It was through a co-worker that Edwards learned about Schmidt.
When Schmidt first discussed playing volleyball for Ridgewater, the conversation initially caught her by surprise.
“I never really thought that I would come here and play, in college especially,” she said.
Schmidt did not say she would play, but she also did not say she didn’t want to play.
That’s when Bohlsen opted to reach out and talk to her, offering her three days to consider.
“At that point I didn’t even know what I was getting, and if I would have known, I wouldn’t have let her give me three days to decide,” Bohlsen said.
“The only reason she had three days to decide is because we had four days from the day that I asked her. So she literally only had four days.”
While Bohlsen and Edwards were doing their best to recruit Schmidt, the final push came from Schmidt’s best friend in Leyendecker to re-join her on the court.
“I knew that she still loved the game but it just unfortunately didn’t work out very well for her in high school,” she said. “So I tried to convince her and, I mean, it took a lot of convincing. But when she decided to do it, she just loved it ever since.”
Bohlsen and Schmidt acknowledged Leyendecker’s persistence in bringing Schmidt back to the court.
“She really, really pushed me to come out just for like the first week of it,” Schmidt said. “I am just so happy that Madi really pushed me to come out.”
Bohlsen believes that was the pivotal moment in Schmidt’s decision.
“If it wasn’t for Madi, I don’t think (Schmidt) would have had the faith to come out,” she said. “She knew, when you love this sport, as much as those girls do, as much as I and my assistant love this game, you don’t pass it up. When you love this game, you don’t want to be my age and regretting you didn’t come out to play.”
The Warriors eventually came into the season with 11 players, after starting with only a handful and a new coaching staff.
Haylee Johnson, another graduate of Paynesville, also joined Schmidt and Leyendecker as an outside hitter on the Warriors.
With the team being put together so quickly, Schmidt said the transition was tough at the start of the season.
“It was definitely hard because at first no one really knew where we were playing, everyone came from different coaches and half the girls came in thinking: ‘I can’t trust my back row, I have to get every single one,’” she said.
Through a series of practices and pre-season matches, the trust and confidence began to develop with each passing day.
Now, the team has nothing but trust in each other.
“It's just amazing how we all came together, especially about trusting each other in the back row,” Schmidt said. “It comes to our teammates. We’re all about each other. I think that we’re just all one piece and we all just have to be a team to play. I just think about my teammates.”
Leyendecker added: “I love all of the connections that we have made with our teammates and our coaches even. They support us in everything that we do … It’s not serious all of the time, we do have fun.”
For Schmidt, the overall love of the game came back on the Warriors first game night of the season.
“It just clicked right away with me especially with having a year off and I just feel like in every game I just want to put in as much effort as I can,” she said, “especially showing (my coaches) that they put me in the right spot and that I’m there for a reason.”
While earning the win and doing what is best for the team is always on Schmidt’s mind, there is always an individual goal she holds to her heart with every game played.
“Right when we had our first game it just all came back to me. Like: ‘I am going to show my high school coaches what they missed out,’” she said. “My goal for the whole season was to just show them what they missed out on and each and every single game I’m like ‘OK, I have a set goal for myself every game’ and I accomplish it mostly.’”
Bohlsen said having Schmidt on the court is a gift and a job.
“In games, she’s flying out, way outside the court and before I can even blink she is back in base,” she said. “Another thing that I love about her is that she is not afraid to dive. That is one of the hardest things to teach the back row is to fall and trust your instincts and your training. It’s scary. It’s extremely scary falling into a ball.
“Not knowing where you’re falling because your eye is on the ball and she just has no fear and it pays off. She gets hands on everything,” she added. “She is getting the ball popped up and diving clean, she is a natural. She is doing things that I cannot teach, I can just nurture and grow.”
Schmidt says that ‘no fear’ mentality came from playing at Paynesville.
“My high school career, they pushed us to the limit,” she said. “They were like ‘get every ball, dive for every ball,’ they taught us everything in high school. That has really helped, especially in college.”
For Schmidt, after proving herself to be Ridgewater’s true underdog, the defensive specialist gave advice to those that may be underdogs too.
“I would honestly tell them just to go with their gut and what they feel is right and if they have another opportunity to do it and have no regrets, and if you know you are not going to quit,” she said. “Just push them and show them what you got.”