MacDonald a quiet, but key leader of WSU’s young volleyball team


Junior setter Haley MacDonald serves the ball during a game against Utah in Bohler Gym, Sept. 26, 2015.

Like a point guard running an offense and a quarterback relaying play calls in from the press box, the setter serves a similar roll on a volleyball team.

She is the starting lineup’s scout in the film room and extension of the coaching staff on the court, setting up hitters and reading the defensive formations of the opposition.

Not usually observed by the casual fan, the setter is not putting the ball away on kills like junior outside hitter Kyra Holt or digging out attacks the way senior libero Kate Sommer does. Instead, a team’s setter assists in all of these efforts. In the past six games, Washington State’s setter, junior Haley MacDonald, has managed to assist in 268 kills over the past six games.

An impressive statistic no doubt, but for MacDonald the credit goes instead to her teammates. It is how she fulfills being what she dubs a “servant leader” for Cougar volleyball.

“I just have to give it to my team,” MacDonald said. “I wouldn’t get the assists if they didn’t put the ball away. That’s all on them. I try and locate the ball well and trick out the block on the other side but that’s really all I can do. The rest is up to them.”

With four games left to go, the Cougars have been in somewhat of a transitional period this fall. Eight freshmen added to the roster created plenty of overhaul for a program coming off of a 1-19 mark in Pac-12 play last season. Through this phase though, WSU (15-13, 4-12) has seen its young roster learn how to play a complete match in the Pac-12, and much of the development correlates with a grounded yet skilled setter.

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“She’s really helpful,” freshman setter Katelyn Vander Tuig said of MacDonald. “If I ever have any questions, she answers them. If I need help, she’ll help me with the transition. She notices anything that I need to fix. If I have any questions, if I need extra practice, anything. She’s there for me.”

The funny thing is, taking a mentoring role is not something MacDonald is accustomed to. She has always been extremely talented – playing on state-championship-winning teams at Jackson High School in Bothell – but morphing her playing abilities with a stabilizing role has proven to be yet another transition for Greeny’s team.

“Definitely reaching out more to my teammates and bonding more now that I’m in a leadership role and an upperclassmen,” MacDonald said of the biggest difference in the work she did this past off-season. “I need to make sure I’m setting the right examples and am leading properly and being a good mentor for the freshmen who are soon going to be in the same position I am. That’s a lot different. I’ve really had to kind of grow up and be the bigger person.”

“A lot of it was getting to know the new freshmen on a personal level outside of volleyball and then correlating that within our training and just building up trust with them.”

The Pac-12 conference features four teams ranked in the top 10 of the AVCA Division-1 poll and six in the top 25, meaning that every weekend slate of game poses different challenges. Having a liaison with the coaching staff proves crucial.

Like in basketball, a team without a point guard will struggle to run efficiently on offense; a poor leader at the quarterback position equals doomsday in production.

“I have to be a big part of the scouting report or know a lot of what they know,” MacDonald said of her role within coaches Jen and Burdette Greeny’s gameplans. “Technically the setter is the coach on the court, so I have to be on the exact same page as they are. A lot of the scouting report, I look at the other team’s weaker blockers, what holes are open for me to dump, what systems or plays we can run to trick out other blockers. So a lot of my focus is the other team’s front row and what plays I can run around that to have the most success.”

Points have been at a premium for a nurturing offense learning how to operate as a cohesive nucleus of talent. There is no doubt that the future is bright in Bohler Gym, but even the greatest of athletes can always use a little help. What would Michael Jordan have been without Scottie Pippen?

“A lot of what the setter does is try and set their hitters up for success,” MacDonald said. “My job is to try and get my hitters one-on-one so they only have one block and more court to hit from, and that’s hard to watch for observers. When I go up on the set, I’m watching the block in my peripheral, seeing if she moves any which way so that I can set it in the other direction, if my hitter has one-on-one, or can hit it in the other direction. I think the main thing that observers don’t see is why I set the ball and when.”

MacDonald is not the emphatic leader that Holt is on the offensive end or a vocalist the way Sommer roles. She is the strategist, the mad-hatter.

“I would say my role is more game strategy; where I need to know the score, where I need to know who to set and when. I need to know more of my surroundings whereas Kyra, she’s more of a leader where she has to put the ball away,” MacDonald said. “She’s one of my go-to hitters and her job is to put the ball away and she leads in that aspect, and she leads in the aspect of passing. She’s an all-around great player and how she leads – she sets a good example.”

“My role is to know what to do and when, giving my hitters encouragement, giving my passers encouragement – more of a serving role, serving my hitters. ‘Okay where do you need the ball? Do you need the ball higher?’ So more of a servant role in my position.”

Sunday was senior day for Sommer – the Cougars’ all-time record holder for most digs – and the ovation she received was beyond appropriate considering the legacy she will likely have with the program’s turnaround. MacDonald shuddered to think that it will be her out there next November walking across the court with her parents as the PA announcer gives everyone a rundown of her career.

Being atop the all-time WSU assist leaders will likely be included in the script, but that is not what MacDonald hopes her lasting impression will be.

“I want people to know me as a servant leader, and really someone who is trustworthy and gives to her teammates, works hard and is passionate,” MacDonald said. “The main thing is just someone who was really trustworthy.”

With 986 season assists from MacDonald thus far, the emergence of freshman outside hitter McKenna Woodford has been sped up and since proven to be an invaluable component of Greeny’s offensive strategy and block on defense. Freshman middle blocker Taylor Mims and her footwork in particular have benefited from MacDonald’s defensive formations.

“I think she has made a lot of improvement, especially defensively,” WSU Head Coach Jen Greeny said. “It’s great to see. She’s really been distributing the ball well, getting our hitters going, giving them some confidence. As a setter, that’s really important to do.”

As eight freshmen have assimilated into the Cougar volleyball program, it has made next season feel as though playoff volleyball returning to Pullman for the first time since 2009 is distinctly possible. It sure will help having the team’s level-headed setter back for her senior year. Even better is that MacDonald is a player who has not only enjoyed her personal best season of volleyball but also enabled others to share the same success.

Any successful team needs that calming presence in competition – someone a player can turn to for answers. MacDonald has done just that and more for Greeny this fall, and it will be her team as much as it is Holt’s in their senior campaigns. Everyone affiliated with the program knew coming in this season that there would be some adjustments to team chemistry taking place with so many new faces.

The future has always looked bright though – that is a commodity of having a player like MacDonald. A team needs its setter, its servant leader. But WSU really needed MacDonald to step up in her junior campaign; quietly helping galvanize the Cougar volleyball program, she has more than done so.