At Mac, sports need not compromise academics

Photo by Charles Hallman Abrielle Union

First of a two-part column

It’s been a long while since this reporter spent an entire day embedded with a college team, given full access to their practices. Sarah Graves and her Macalester College Scots volleyball team welcomed me to sit in on two practices on the last Monday in August, the last week of preseason preparation.   

I was, for just one day, the BMOC — black man on the 53-acre urban campus on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue.

We first met Graves last fall. She now is in her third season as the school’s only female head coach of color — she might be the only female college volleyball coach of color in Minnesota.  “I should probably search” to be sure, the 2004 Macalester grad and former standout player said when told of this notable fact.   

A Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) spokesperson confirmed that Graves definitely is the only female head coach of color in the 12-team Division III league. 

Division III is the lowest of the three NCAA divisions and the only one where athletic scholarships are prohibited. It’s not the win-or-else environment that’s often found at larger schools. But D-III players nonetheless work as hard as their D-I and D-II counterparts to reach their athletic goals. 

“Our team values this season are love, respect and dedication,” Graves stressed. “These three words really encompass what we do and why we do it.”

Division III also provides the perfect environment for student-athletes to be student-athletes, especially at Macalester. The private liberal arts college is ranked 27th among U.S. liberal arts colleges in the 2019 edition of Best Colleges, with an enrollment of just over two thousand students.   

Photo by Charles Hallman Coach Sarah Graves, in gray, talking with her players

It’s not just about winning and losing, the coach pointed out: “It’s much more… In no other lab in life do you really get to learn these lessons.

“I think Macalester is a unique place. The academics and the athletics are very rigorous,” 5’-2” junior Abrielle Dillon of Brown Deer, Wis. said. “Volleyball has shaped my time management, and therefore I manage my academics in a way that is efficient and effective.” The psychology and neuroscience major was a 2018 MIAC All-Academic Team member.  

“Academically I really want to push myself, because I am a first-generation college student,” said Deborah Pickford, a psychology and educational studies senior from Denver, Colo. “I’m the first in my family to graduate from a four-year university.” The 5’-5” defensive specialist and Dillon are the team’s only black players. “I am applying to Ph.D. programs in the winter,” Pickford added.

“Volleyball unfortunately is not forever,” Dillon continued. “You have to graduate and get a real job. I want to do school psychology programs” after she finally finishes with school, she noted.

Preseason practices with their endless drills and other necessary activities to prepare for opponents can be taxing on both players and coaches. “I was done with practice two days ago,” Coach Graves admitted.

Last fall, the Scots were 9-8 in non-conference play, led by then-sophomore defensive specialist Dillon with 449 digs, eighth in the MIAC, and a team-high 37 service aces. Macalester’s 2019 season began Aug. 30 in Winona, Minn.

“I’m really excited for the season,” Pickford said at the last of the two-a-day practices we observed. “I think we have a lot of potential… My goal is to do everything I can whenever I step on the court. It’s my last season.”

Next: How the Scots deal with adversity