Coming home to coach adds to the pressure

Macalester Head Volleyball Coach Sarah Graves surrounded by her players and staff Charles Hallman/MSR News

Sarah Graves is in rarefied company as an athlete alumnus who returns to the campus where she once starred to now lead her sport as head coach. Graves was a Macalester College volleyball standout (2000-03) who graduated in 2004 with a communications and media studies degree. Later, after she earned a Master’s degree in communication from the University of Delaware, where she was a volleyball graduate assistant coach for two seasons, Graves returned to Mac as an assistant coach for six seasons.

Macalester hired Graves in 2017 as head coach to replace former coach Annie Doman, who took a position in the school’s career development center, making this Graves’ third return to the St. Paul school. She was Denison (Ohio) University head volleyball coach for two seasons prior to this as well as a member of the school’s Black faculty caucus.

Third time’s a charm, perhaps, as Graves, now in her second year, strives to lead Mac back to volleyball athletic greatness.

“Mac made a surge back in my day,” Graves recalled a couple of weeks ago before a team practice at Leonard Center. She played on the 2000 squad that reached the MIAC semifinals. Graves is on the career top 10 in block assists (third), service aces (third), assists (fourth), and eighth in digs. She was the team MVP and all-MIAC in 2001.

At our first meeting, the head coach presented a cool confidence alongside her youthful appearance – Graves easily looks like one of her current players. This coolness we later saw in person at two recent matches. In the first, the Scots lost the first set but won the next three to defeat North Central University.

Then last Wednesday, after visiting Carleton handily swept them in the first two sets, Mac stormed back to win set three and nearly forced a fifth set before losing 3-1 at home.

Some Mac players with Coach Graves standing at right Charles Hallman/MSR News

Despite the preseason predictions that the Scots will finish near the bottom of the league this season, and given Macalester’s historical emphasis on high academics, Graves believes her team is moving forward. “[Our] first year was a lot of putting things in place…on where this program should be. It’s a lot of work.”

It’s challenging, but Graves welcomes it, she stressed. “I think every institution has its own recruiting challenges. Having high academic standards here is [the] first thing I look at with an athlete. I don’t even look at her until I know her [high school] grades.”

With this said, the Mac head coach virtually has the world in which to cast her recruiting net. “We [have] a national [and] international recruiting base, so I have the ability to attract women from all over the U.S. and all over the world,” Graves pointed out.

She praises her 16-player roster: “They have put in the work. That makes it easy as a coach. This year we are taking the next step,” which includes how they mentally approach the game. She added, “We are really focusing on the ‘how’ this year.”

The 7-7 Scots play Thursday at Concordia (Moorhead), seeking their first MIAC win this season (now 0-2).

Coming home to coach where you once played is both a blessing and a source of additional pressure as well, Graves noted. “Being an athlete who had success here, an athlete who connected well with the program, a student who loves Macalester and what it’s about, there is a lot of pressure coming [with] that. My focus is making sure I am giving this program what it deserves.”