Published : Wednesday, November 14, 2018 | 6:25 PM
Ellie Watkins remembers those early letters and notes so clearly:
Yes, you are talented on the volleyball court, the college coaches said. But no, you’re too short. Too short to play the key position of setter; too short to play at the college level.
Indeed, they one thing Ellie could not change is her 5’5’’ height. But what she could control is her personal drive and determination. She committed to intense year-round training focusing on overcoming her height with developing undeniable skills on the court—as a setter.
“I had to get over the fact that I was short for a setter,” Ellie said. “I said to myself ‘I can do this.’ I was going to try my hardest to be a good setter. It’s not going to be about my height, it’s going to be about my skill.”
Her quick and strong response, her ability to control the ball, bluff and make instant decisions at the net for the good of her team, combined with devotion to her academic studies, has earned Ellie a coveted spot on the Georgetown University volleyball team—as a setter.
She led the Cubs varsity volleyball team to a remarkable Prep League Championship this season, the Cubs’ first in four years, while also earning first-team all-league accolades in the highly competitive sport.
“Not only is Ellie an outstanding athlete, she models our special brand of Mayfield sportsmanship,” said Athletic Director Steve Bergen. “Her leadership on and off the court have been essential to our team spirit and competitive edge and it’s a quality she displays daily as a member of the school’s Athletic Leadership Council.”
On her longtime club team, the San Gabriel Elite, Ellie has travelled the nation and competed in tournaments, earning widespread accolades for her skills.
Mayfield Volleyball Coach Hugo Ayala, who has also coached Ellie on her club team, described her as a “natural talent” who uplifts her team and inspires them to work at a high level.
“She’s 5’5” but she’s the best setter in the league and I’d say the entire area,” Coach Ayala said. “She proved you don’t need height to have talent.”
In volleyball the setter is a critical position in charge of the offense, much like the quarterback in football. The quick-thinking setter must decide who should get the ball and when. She must consistently deliver a good ball to the team’s hitters and have her wits about her to move in a deceptive manner to confuse the opponent about her moves.
Ellie credits much of her success as a setter to the coaching of Brian Thornton, a 2012 Olympian and member of the U.S. Men’s National Team from 2009-2012. Brian was known as short setter and helped Ellie refine her skills.
“He taught me be how to be deceptive and fast—that’s what is going to to win the game,” Ellie said. ‘It matters what you can do with your hands. I wanted to be fast with the ball and ready on my feet.”
She also expressed deep gratitude to her parents, Carol and Stephen Watkins, who have supported Ellie’s passion for volleyball every step of the way. At Mayfield we will certainly miss the Watkins’ cheering presence in the bleachers and longtime leadership on the Booster Club.
Ellie’s two older sisters are Mayfield alums. Charlotte ’16 is attending USC and Madeline ’13 graduated from the University of Virginia with a double major in computer science and math and is working at CapTech, an IT management consulting firm.
Ellie met the Georgetown volleyball coach during a tour of the university last year. Georgetown, she said, has long been her “dream school.” After their initial contact she sent him video of her game and he saw her play at an East Coast tournament.
She found out in early fall that her stature as a scholar-athlete earned her a position on the Georgetown team. The signing on Wednesday makes it official!
“When I found out I just burst into tears,” Ellie said. “I didn’t think my dream school would offer me a spot.”
Ellie is not sure yet what she will select as a college major. At Mayfield she enjoyed the challenge of math and the critical thinking that history demands. She said the rigors of Mayfield’s academic program have taught her how to balance athletics and studies and she said she feels well prepared for the challenges ahead.
“I just love this sport and have such a passion for it,” Ellie said. “I know the next level is going to be more intense, but I’m excited, I’m ready.”
Mayfield Senior School, 500 Bellefontaine Street, Pasadena, (626) 799-9121 or visit www.mayfieldsenior.org.