For 11 years, Natalie Doyle was a setter. When she first picked up volleyball as a diminutive 10-year old, she quickly fell in love with the position, as her height limited where she could play on the court. Over a decade later, Doyle is back in the setting role due to an injury to starting junior setter Beth Kinsella, and enjoying every minute of it.
“I love getting to make the decisions,” Doyle said. “As a setter you have this unique opportunity to control the pace of the game.”
Coming into the year, Doyle played primarily as a right-side defensive player, but her plans for the season changed in a flash. Early in a late September match at Princeton, Kinsella went down with a hand injury, forcing Doyle into the spotlight. The sophomore didn’t miss a beat, recording a career-high 51 assists in a close loss to the Tigers.
“It just felt natural,” said Doyle of returning to her childhood position. “It wasn’t as much of an adjustment as I thought it would be. I had the skills, and my teammates helped me through it.”
While the sophomore had previous experience at the position, that didn’t preclude the need for the team as a whole to alter its strategy.
“[Kinsella and I] are different athletes—we have different setting styles, different speeds, and we match up with hitters differently,” Doyle said. “I’m not the tallest player, so [the team] switched up our defense a little bit, but we both overall are setters with the same game plan, and that’s why we were able to go pretty easily from one setter to another.”
Following the five-set loss to Princeton, Doyle led the Crimson to two straight wins on the road against league rivals Penn and Brown. The setter tallied double-digit assists and digs in both of those contests.
“Our first weekend with her setting, she was the one calming people down,” co-captain Christine Wu said. “She stepped into the leadership role perfectly. We were really proud of her.”
“That was a big deal because when I set last year, I was not so calm,” Doyle said. “It was definitely a sign of me maturing in my role as a setter and in knowing what the team needed that I was able to calmly lead the team in the moment.”
Although Wu praised the sophomore’s initial performance, Doyle said she has improved her play during her six games at setter.
“It just gets more and more comfortable,” she said. “The more I set the hitters in matches, the more I’m connecting with them. And the more I play defense with specific defenders, we learn who takes what ball and evolve together to move more and more as a unit.”
Her growing comfort at the position is not surprising given the history she has both with the sport and as a setter, beginning as far back as elementary school.
“I grew up with two older cousins who played volleyball,” Doyle began. “They taught me how to play volleyball. They would come up with drills for me, and I wanted to be just like them. They inspired me.”
Following in the footsteps of her older cousin Kate Fisher, a former setter at Georgetown, Doyle started setting.
“I was 10 years old, and I don’t think I hit five feet for a few years,” Doyle said. “I have this picture of me when I’m setting—I’m in extra, extra small spandex, and I’m wallowing in [them]. I was absolutely tiny. People would have laughed at me if I told them I wanted to hit … so I just started setting.”
Trying to improve at her position, Doyle often commuted to volleyball clubs an hour to 90 minutes away.
“I tried as hard as I could, and it turned out I was pretty okay, even though I was absolutely tiny,” Doyle said. “I’m not the biggest setter, but I’m quick. And that’s always been something I’ve capitalized on, both in the defensive role, running down really tough balls, and in the setting role, ... keeping [the ball] in play so my teammates can do something good with it.”
Even after playing setter for over half of her life, Doyle still finds herself developing new skills, especially earlier this season during her time as a defensive specialist.
“Starting the season with a real defensive focus has ingrained in me better defensive instincts,” she said. “I’ve been able to transfer that into the setting role. I do have better defense now because I spent so many preseason matches just focusing on the defense. That really let me develop that skill.”