Women’s volleyball fights hard through stiff competition


Outside hitter Gwen Wooten ’25 readies an attack. Photo by Gwen Reoch ’25.

Gwen Reoch, Sports Editor

With an electric crowd, a passionate coach and a supportive bench, Macalester volleyball is defined by the energy and positivity that fills the gym each and every game. A crowd of nearly 150 students, staff, parents and more supporters showed out to support the team on Sept. 21 for Staff/Faculty Appreciation Night. Their opponent, #14 Gustavus Adolphus College, posed the toughest challenge of a heavily competitive preseason schedule for the Scots. Macalester’s performance against the Gusties, in their first game of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) season, would be crucial for setting the tone for the year ahead.

The 2021 volleyball team was undoubtedly one of the success stories in the athletics department. In Head Coach Mary Johnston’s first year, the 13-12(4-7) Scots registered the program’s first overall winning record in more than a decade. Led by All-Conference First Team awardee Eliza King ’23, Macalester finished eighth in the MIAC standings, still well short of the playoffs but the school’s highest finish since 2013. The last time the Scots had won a conference game was 2016, signaling a clear jump in quality last year.

Now, the team is primed to continue riding that improvement forward. One key to their success recently has been upperclassmen retention. Whereas many Macalester teams have faced losses in their older classes for a multitude of reasons, including a lack of game time over their years on the team, volleyball has kept a strong leadership core of seven dedicated seniors. As Johnston told The Mac Weekly, returning with a full squad intact helped the Scots focus more on the smaller details.

“[W]e did start off farther along in the process than we did last year,” Johnston said.  “So we were able to focus on different things.. we could just take another step forward. We’re still focusing on simple things and trusting the process and all those big overarching themes for us.”

Despite going through last place finishes, team culture controversy and head coach turnover, the Class of 2023 has stayed committed to helping the squad win. Athletics Director Donnie Brooks also values the team’s personnel stability as a sign of strong leadership and overall upward progress.

“To have that leadership remain on the team says a couple things to me,” Brooks said. “One is that the culture is good. When players stick around, and we have a large number of players who could easily quit when they’re not playing, but they don’t, it says something about the culture. But it also says something to me about the camaraderie amongst the team. And when you have camaraderie amongst the team, you have talent. And you have what I heard more of than I’ve ever heard before, joy, coming out of that gym when you have a combination of those things. It tells you that there’s something special that can happen, the ‘X-factor’ that we always talk about.”

In addition to on-court success, the 2021 Scots also earned recognition for their work in the classroom. On July 18, the team was awarded the Team Academic Award by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. This fits the “excellence in education” model of success that Brooks and the coaches at Macalester have worked hard to achieve.

I think it was like the 12th year in a row that they’ve done it,” Johnston said of the award. “So even long before I was at Macalester the team members were obviously prioritizing academics and focusing on that. I think that’s a really great tradition that our team is trying to continue to uphold as we bring in strong students and have them really focus on their academic pursuits too.”

So far this season, youth has driven the Scots to an impressive 9-5(0-1) record. Of the players with the ten most sets played this year, there is only one senior, King, and zero juniors. Adisa Preston ’25 has shined thus far, leading the team in total kills with 123, the seventh-highest total in the conference. Nicole Norton ’25 and Maya Mortenson ’26 have split time at setter, playing an even 37 sets each, pushing the Scots to the second-most total assists at 515. On defense, libero Torrance Williams ’25 has powered the team with 194 digs, while Stephanie Geber ’25 and Avery Rahe ’26 have provided consistent net security with 71.0 total blocks.

Sitting at a .500 record six games into 2022, a strong performance at the 2022 Subway Stinger Classic  propelled the Scots upward. Headlining the 2-1 weekend was a five set thriller with hosts University of Wisconsin-Superior, which Macalester won behind strong defensive performances by King (25 digs) and Geber (four blocks).

After a win over North Central University (MN) put the Scots at four wins in five days, the Scots prepared for their toughest challenge yet — the Castle Point Challenge in Hoboken, NJ. Coach Johnston would be returning to Stevens Institute of Technology, where she was an assistant coach and athletics administrator for two seasons previously in her career. 

Macalester easily toppled William Paterson University and Wentworth Institute of Technology, 3-0 and 3-1. Stevens, the final opponent of the trip, would prove to be the toughest challenge of the three matches, having finished third in the final 2021 NCAA DIII Region IV rankings. The Scots took the first two sets, fueled by three kills in each from Preston and four from Rahe in the second.
Despite being outplayed early, the Ducks fought back to tie the game at two sets apiece. In the fourth, the Scots survived four different set points before eventually falling. In the fifth set, played to 15 points, the Scots quickly found themselves down 10-5. A Stevens service error snapped their five point streak and flipped the set on its head, starting a 10-3 run that would put the set and match away for the Scots.

Leaving New Jersey with a 9-4 record, on pace for by far the best team record in the last two decades, the Scots turned their focus to their conference opener against Gustavus Adolphus College on Sept. 21. The 14th ranked DIII team in the nation, the Gusties posed the toughest challenge that Macalester had seen all year, just as Stevens did in the game before. 

Before the season, Johnston had set her sights high, hoping to continue the team’s trajectory towards the top of the MIAC and above. Clearly, her hopes were starting to materialize.

Every year we want to be in the playoffs, so that would be a goal for us for this year,” Johnston said. “And just like every other team in this department, we want to be at the top of the conference and competing in the NCAA tournament at some point. So those are definitely long term goals for the team, but I think this year, if we can make a two place jump to, you know, sixth place either higher than that, I think that would definitely be successful. But more than that, I also want them to feel like they’ve grown as players and people and had a positive experience too. And I think if we focus on the little things, then we’ll be able to have the best of both worlds there. Competition, success and then growth.”

Outside hitter Gwen Wooten ’25 and Middle Blocker Avery Rahe ’26 launch to block an attack. Photo by Gwen Reoch ’25.

The importance of the game, the decision to host Staff/Faculty Appreciation Night, and a preceding stretch of more than two weeks without a home game all culminated in an electric crowd of almost 150 excited fans. Macalester had not defeated Gustavus since 2004, not even winning a set in the last five competitions. Despite that, after nearly two decades of little to cheer about, the recent success of Johnston’s Scots had the Macalester campus hopeful of toppling a giant.

In the first set, three early kills from Rahe put the Scots up 8-4, looking to be in control. A nine-point streak by the Gusties, however, reversed the lead and claimed the momentum for themselves for the rest of the night. Macalester was downed in three sets: 25-16, 25-17, 25-14. 

Even though the performance took a turn for the worse after the hot start, the energy in the Alumni Gymnasium never lapsed. Through the final sets the bleachers stayed rumbling, the bench stayed shouting and Johnston stayed fired up by Macalester kills. 

Part of the undying belief can be attributed to the Scots’ victory over Carleton at home in 2021, during which 326 fans shook the building as they witnessed a Macalester comeback from down 2-0.

“The thing that Macalester volleyball showed last year [against Carleton], is when you could win a five set match in a comeback fashion, you start to believe and when you start to believe, you could actually be dangerous in this conference,” Brooks said.

Despite being officially counted as a loss, there were plenty of positives for the Scots to focus on. Geber had a phenomenal game on both sides of the net, first years featured prominently against nationally ranked competition, and belief was not lost. After the game, King voiced the team’s positive outlook and what the loss can teach them going forward.

“We definitely had good moments, [Geber] hit a .300, Katrina [Schoen 0’23]’s digs were amazing. There were definitely really good parts in the game, we just let theirs get us down more than ours lifted us up,” King said. “We competed with them, but we shut down at points, and that’s ultimately what made us lose. But we were up 8-4, and so just knowing that Gustavus is at the top of the conference and that we can hang with them makes us really excited.”

[email protected]