Season-ending injury dashes preseason high hopes

Abrielle Dillon (l) and teammate Deborah Pickford
Photo by Charles Hallman

Conclusion of a two-part column

The Macalester women’s volleyball team came into this season with high hopes. “They came in this year so ready,” Scots Coach Sarah Graves recalled. 

The Scots women spikers hoped to improve on last year’s 9-19 record with eight newcomers on board, three of whom would eventually become starters. “We are seeing some results of the building we have been doing,” Graves said during preseason training.

However, the team has lost nine of their first 10 matches. One heartbreaking loss came Sept. 3 when the Scots were up 2-0 at North Central University in Minneapolis, just a point away from earning a hard-fought sweep. But North Central rallied to win the third set and the next two for a 3-2 victory.    

The preseason anticipation and enthusiasm was derailed about a week before the season opener when Junior Defensive Specialist Abrielle Dillon, the team’s digs leader a year ago, suffered a season-ending injury August 22. Losing a player like Dillon, the Scots’ starting libero (the rearmost, roaming defensive player), can be hard on any team to replace even in the short run, and definitely for an entire season. 

“To have an injury that is season-ending is impactful to a team,” Graves admitted. “The one thing I did notice [after the team learned of Dillon’s injury] is that I don’t think the other defensive specialists have missed a beat. They need to step up and play that role.”

Obviously disappointed but not discouraged, at least openly, Dillon stressed, “I already know I have a lot of internal drive and motivation, and that is going to drive my rehab to get me back where I was or better.” 

Teammate Deborah Pickford, a senior defensive specialist, definitely feels for Dillon. “I was in Abby’s position last year and [due to a season-ending injury] not able to play,” Pickford recalled. 

“Our team values this season are love, respect and dedication,” Graves explained. Not being able to lead on the court, Dillon is pursuing these values in other ways off it, the coach added. “It’s an opportunity for her to continue to lead and show people that dedication isn’t just court time. Your discipline and your love for the game isn’t that I get to start every game. [It] goes beyond that.”

The MIAC coaches’ preseason poll placed Macalester 12th — dead last. The 12 coaches vote for every team but their own, and teams are ranked in order of highest point total to lowest. “When was the last time Macalester wasn’t picked 12th?” Graves said matter-of-factly when asked. 

 “I think people looking from the outside haven’t seen yet or don’t appreciate the [rebuilding] process that we’ve gone through, doing things right [in] developing kids,” said Graves. “Not just bringing in excellent athletes as we have in this first-year class, but developing the athletes we have and trying to retain them, and helping them reach their dream on where they want to be.”

Division III is no different than Division I and II when it comes to winning and losing — just less cutthroat. “Yes, there always is pressure on us [about] wins and losses,” continued Graves, the school’s only female head coach of color. “We look at that [win-loss] record every day.”  

Macalester AD Donnie Brooks was hired last winter. “He is tough and disciplined, and he does want excellence out of us,” Graves noted. “One thing about Donnie is that he is a very good relational leader, a leader who is process-oriented. He’s there to help, [but] he expects us to deliver.”

The Scots improved last weekend to 2-9 after a 3-1 home win over Crown College. They will begin conference play Wednesday at Carlton College with time enough remaining to salvage the 2019 season in the way the team originally envisioned.

Special thanks to Coach Sarah Graves, her players and coaches, and Sports Information Director Matthew McLagan for their assistance and cooperation with these stories.