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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Volleyball stands strong against MIAC’s best

Volleyball stands strong against MIACs best

The tides have decidedly turned in what was once one of Macalester’s worst sports, as it undergoes a long-awaited resurgence. The last time Macalester’s volleyball side saw the MIAC playoffs was the year 2000, and that year was a special case where every team made it. These Scots own the longest playoff drought in any sport in the MIAC, but this year, history beckons for a team with energy, skill and a flair for the dramatic. 

In 2021, volleyball came to the end of their season with three games to play, and a chance at making the playoffs. However, they fell in all three contests and narrowly missed out. In 2022, they did the exact same thing. This year, they’ll hope to hold their energy through the close of the regular season and make it back to the dance in early November.

In a long pre-season full of non-conference opponents, the Scots went 5-6 against a wide array of foes. On Sept. 22, Macalester welcomed the Cobbers of Concordia College (Minn.) to the Leonard Center for their conference opener. Against a close rival that finished just above them in 2022, the Scots eventually fell 3-2, but showcased much of what has so far defined this season. 

The scoreline itself is one thing. These Scots have a noted penchant for getting into marathon five-set battles, something players and Head Coach Mary Johnston wryly mentioned offhand in interviews. 

“Keeping them entertained,” as Grace Watkins ’26 put it, has also been a staple of the way these Scots sometimes play out their points. In each of the sets that the Scots lost to the Cobbers, they went down by double-digit margins before piecing together runs to make it close, even if they didn’t come all the way back. Those runs were often sparked by wild plays that saw Scots scramble across the court, making thrilling last ditch efforts to keep points alive, even down 19-6, as was the case in the fourth set.  

Against Bethel University on Sept. 23, who went 8-3 and easily beat the Scots in 2022, the determination Macalester showed in the Concordia match carried over, and was finally met with reward. The Scots went down 1-0, then 2-1 despite a second set fightback. For another team, there may have been pessimistic scenes, with an on-paper superior opponent one set away from victory. The Scots hadn’t beaten the Royals in 12 years, and it seemed like another one in the loss column. 

However, the Scots wouldn’t go that easily. In a chaotic fourth set that went back and forth and where neither side could hold momentum, the Scots battled to a 17-17 score, then proceeded to lose only two further points to win and force a decisive fifth set. The Scots jumped out to a lead, allowed Bethel back into it, then went back and forth and reached a 14-13 match point opportunity. Receiving the serve, a chaotic point ensued, until a Stephanie Geber ’25 kill ended it, sealing a famous win for the Scots.

“[The Bethel win] was our team just working really hard at the things that we’re trying to get them to do,” Coach Johnston said of the historic match. “[Focusing] on the process, [going] back to things that work and just believing in themselves and being for each other; those are things that we try to talk about.”

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 11-game season, where every match counts and any team hoping to make waves must capitalize on their opportunities, the Bethel win both inspires confidence and opens up end-of-season possibilities. Extra wins, especially against good teams, go a long way to help a squad’s ambitions. 

Coach Johnston, whose unmissable courtside energy boosts the Scots throughout their matches, isn’t as concerned with the results as much as the processes that eventually lead to success. 

“Well, I mean, everyone wants to win and be in the playoffs, right?” Johnston said. “So I feel like that’s kind of a given thing that we want to work on. But more than that, just having our team be more process-focused, and really getting good and confident with skills, and trying to really just be present and be focused on the process rather than so focused on results.”

From 2013 to 2019, the Scots endured an almighty dry spell where they only won two conference games across six seasons. In 2021, they roared back and had a shot at the playoffs going into the last few games. That improvement was no coincidence — that year saw the introduction of players like Torrance Williams ’25, Geber, Grace Galer ’25, Adisa Preston ’25 and others who still form much of this team’s core. 

2021 was also Coach Johnston’s first year leading the Scots, and the year-on-year improvements in each season have been the story of her tenure. In 2023, as with 2022, Johnston’s second year, the Scots contend for the playoffs, but she still focuses on doing what will get them there, rather than the winning itself.

“When our staff came in, we had a lot of building to do. So if we make it this year, that’d be great,” Johnston said. “Do I think that we can? Yes. I thought we could make it last year. But I think there’s so much pressure surrounding that, too. So we just want our students to be focused on the now, and the process. That’s really what we’re all about talking about.” 

The class of 2026 has brought along some more big contributors in Sarah Bohrer ’26, Watkins and Avery Rahe ’26. The Scots’ most recent recruitment has brought some more talent into the ranks to improve the team, notably in setter Hannah Morrow ’27, who has already left her mark on the season through her consistent feeds, along with her serving and defensive prowess. Middle blocker Sydney Stratton ’27 has been an imposing presence at the net, giving opponents nightmares and influencing the flow of games.  

“I think that they’re bringing a lot of good volleyball IQ, competitiveness, raising the talent level in the gym,” Johnston said of the first-year class. “And they’re great teammates, they’re really great students in the meetings that we’ve had with them. They’re focusing on the right things. I’m really excited for them to be a part of the program.”

The Scots’ next conference game was against a national powerhouse in Gustavus, and this time they didn’t put up as much of a fight, in a 3-0 loss. 

After some more non-conference action, the Scots came out swinging against St. Catherine University. The Wildcats took down the Scots 3-0 in 2022, and might have been expected to play to a similar result in the rematch. The Scots lost the first set, but, as has become their style, fought back, winning the second, narrowly losing the third, and winning the fourth to force a fifth set. Although they fell in the fifth to drop the match, it was still a strong message to send; that these Scots can hang with the MIAC’s top dogs. 

Part of that ability comes down to these Scots’ competitive mindsets, which leads them to go for broke against teams that nobody expects them to beat. 

“As a team, we’re supposed to go into every game the same,” Preston said. “However, that’s almost impossible, just because you recognize that it’s just a different team on the other side of the net. At least for me, I almost get a little more excited, a little more riled up when it’s like a point against a team that is more well known and established.” 

Torrance Williams put it succinctly: “I feel like when we’re playing these tougher, ranked teams, we have nothing to lose.”

This competitive nature of the 2023 Scots team was seen in the Oct. 11 game against College of St. Benedict, though they didn’t end up with the results to show for it. The game started off strong with an 11-0 run, led by serves from Hannah Morrow. The Bennies answered by fighting their way back and winning the first set. They also went on to win the second set, but not without having to contend with a stunning performance by middle-blocker Stephanie Geber, who had back-to-back blocks and a kill in three points, temporarily taking away momentum from the Bennies. These individual performances are a big part of what is keeping the Scots eligible for a playoff seat, and everyone on the team seems to be playing at a higher level than they did in previous seasons. Even though the Scots lost 3-0, the elements of their fighting spirit were there. 

In the MIAC, where a short season makes every game critical, a very even field figures to challenge these Scots every step of the way. The Scots themselves were once seen as an easy opponent, but they are changing the narrative, as are many other sides.

“Our conference is really even this year,” Preston said. “It’s painfully even, which is great and super exciting, but it also means that we can’t just expect to plow through any team. We have to really fight for every point and earn every win.”

A theme of 2023 has been Macalester performing well in multiple sports as the athletics program as a whole finds itself in a momentous upswing. For the volleyball Scots, history beckons as they look to end an ignominious 23-year stretch without postseason play. In a conference full of improving sides, nothing will come easy, and they will be tested. With their win against Bethel and stout play against the strong teams of the MIAC, they have proven themselves up to the task. Now all that is left is to face that test, with the second half of the conference season in front of them.

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Noah Riccardi, Sports Editor

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