After six record-breaking years, Natalie Work’s time on the court for the Windermere Prep Volleyball team is over, and the senior is preparing for the future.
When Natalie Work took to the court during Windermere Prep’s district tournament opener against a talented Trinity Prep team, she knew this could possibly be the end of her volleyball career.
Going into the game, Windermere Prep had played a difficult regular-season schedule against other teams in the newly formed Citrus League — including Trinity Prep on multiple occasions — and the odds were stacked against the Lakers.
Set by set, the Lakers saw their season come to an end, and once the last point was had in the third — and final — set, the reality of this moment hit Work. Volleyball was officially over.
“It was a fun last game, but it was bittersweet,” Work said. “I’ve been playing volleyball for eight years, and when you’ve been playing a sport for that long, it obviously becomes a part of your identity, so it was hard for me to think about what my life would be without volleyball.
“When I played that last point, I had been kind of waiting for that for quite a while,” she said. “It’s bittersweet at the same time, because I’m definitely ready to move on to the next chapter. But obviously, the whole point of me loving volleyball was my teammates, my coaches and my family — they’re what made me love volleyball.”
With the end of the season came the end of a career for one of the school’s best volleyball players — a player who broke school records in career kills (800), kills in a game (23), kills in a season (211) and career digs (566).
But although it was a career worth having — with incredible memories and good friends — it also was not without its challenges and struggles.
FROM CLUB TO HIGH SCHOOL
When Work was 9 years old, she found herself tired of competitive cheerleading, so she decided to mix it up and do something else.
As someone who doesn’t like to sit still, she decided to give volleyball a try. That year, Work and a friend joined Orlando Volleyball Academy — now known as Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy.
“It was kind of new and exciting to start volleyball, and to actually be able to put hard work put into something I could see myself being good at,” said Work, whose sister also played.
Work continued at the club level before trying out for the varsity team at Windermere Prep in her seventh-grade year. She remembers how different everything was, and how she was — for many years — the youngest on the team.
Although the girls were like older sisters to the young Work, they still jokingly called seniority and asked her to do things such as get water bottles and set up the net by herself.
“I just remember — I was a little bit sassy — being like, ‘No, everyone has to do it, I’m not going to be the only one to do it,’” Work said with a laugh. “But after a while, they realized that I just wasn’t going to do things because I was the youngest. … They learned pretty quickly that, yes, I was going to help set up everything, but I wasn’t just going to do things by myself because I was the youngest.”
As the years passed, Work grew — both in height and game — and became a looming presence on the court as an outside hitter. She racked up stats throughout the seasons and learned how to become a leader for a team that suddenly featured players younger than her.
A NEW CHAPTER
Although things were going great in the gym, for Work, the anxieties of the game began to mount and take their toll.
Any athlete who plays a sport knows the amount of time, dedication and effort required to be the best, and with those requirements come sacrifices. Every moment of the day and routine revolves around your sport, Work said. In Work’s case, it was wake up, go to school, hit the weight room and then go to volleyball practice — often not returning home until about 9 p.m. That’s when she would begin her homework.
At one point, Work found herself going through the motions and playing because she had to. She didn’t consider it a waste of time, but she was burned out and realized during a moment of clarity last year that she didn’t want to play past her senior season.
“I’ve been playing volleyball for eight years, and when you’ve been playing a sport for that long, it obviously becomes a part of your identity, so it was hard for me to think about what my life would be without volleyball.”
— Natalie Work
“I had to miss so many school trips, and I am the student director of dance marathon at our school called Lakerthon,” she said. “Last year, one of my tournaments fell on the same night as Lakerthon, and it was an away tournament in another state. At that point, I was like, ‘I’m just tired of having to sacrifice things that I’m passionate about,’ so that’s when I decided that was kind of the last straw.”
When COVID-19 popped up earlier in the year, Work’s club coach gave players the option to either play or not, and it was then that she decided to take this opportunity to just sit out. It was a chance for her to catch her breath, and it helped her realize what she wanted to do.
Playing her senior season at Windermere Prep was never in question for Work, who — despite a shortened season — led the Lakers with 198 kills, 12 aces and 113 digs.
Now that she has time to look back on her high-school career and reflect on the work she put into playing for the school, Work has no regrets, she said. What she does have are good memories and a legacy that will have a positive influence on the girls who had a chance to play with her.
“Now that I’m not playing a team sport, I think I’ll take away how much I love being a part of a team and doing things for a team, and how important it is to be a good role model and good leader,” Work said. “I’m not necessarily the biggest talker on the court, but even my coach — Coach Peluso — said that, ‘Natalie leads by example, and actions speak louder than words.’ At that point, when he said that, I was like, ‘Finally, someone understands that I’d rather people remember me for what I did more than what I say.’”
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