At 6 feet tall, Washington State University volleyball player Haley MacDonald is big enough to play at the net. Though some teammates and opponents are taller, most NCAA Division I programs have players of her height either as outside hitters or middle blockers.
But MacDonald, a 2013 graduate of Mill Creek’s Jackson High School, is instead a setter. As a younger girl, she explained, “that’s the position I was drawn to. I love taking care of people. That’s my nature.”
These words from a young woman who will graduate in the coming months with a degree in human development and a minor in psychology, and who then expects to attend nursing school so she can, once again, help people.
“Haley is extremely kind,” Cougars head coach Jen Greeny said. “She’s a great listener, a great teammate … and she’s pretty selfless. She’s just fun to be around.”
In addition to being a quality human being, MacDonald is also a top player on a WSU team that is the surprise of the early Pacific-12 Conference season. After not finishing higher than ninth in each of the past three seasons, the Cougars won their first five league matches this year, including victories over Washington, UCLA and Stanford in a stretch of 10 days. All three teams were ranked in the Top 10 nationally at the time.
Though the Cougars have since lost three in a row, their 5-3 league record still has them near the top of the Pac-12 standings. WSU is 15-5 overall.
“I think the hard work is finally paying off,” MacDonald said. “However, we haven’t played flawlessly yet. We beat those (ranked) teams, but we still haven’t played to our potential yet. And that’s kind of exciting. Yes, it feels good to beat Top 10 teams, but we’re still in the gym every day looking at things we can do better.”
The program’s turnabout “has been a long time coming,” she went on. “And I’m not surprised because we’ve been working very, very hard. The fans and the community are very surprised, but we know how hard we’ve been working. So I honestly expected it to finally be happening.”
MacDonald earned four varsity letters at Jackson and was a big reason the Timberwolves finished eighth, first, fourth and third at the Class 4A state tournaments in her high school years. When it came time for college, she had scholarship offers from Washington State and Oregon State in addition to some from smaller schools, but she was drawn to WSU by “the overall atmosphere of the college town and how tight the (volleyball) community was. … And I wanted to be part of the (recruiting) class that could change the face of WSU volleyball.”
This season, she added, “the big words we have are trust, belief and confidence. We’ve been really focusing on those three words, and it’s coming together and showing on the court.”
Because the Cougars began with several returning players from a year ago, “I wouldn’t say I’m surprised (by the team’s success to date),” said Greeny, who is in her sixth WSU season. “But I would say that I’m very proud of what they’ve done so far and what they continue to do as far as being hungry to get better, working hard, being resilient and really coming together with great team chemistry.”
Looking ahead, some big goals remain. Since 2003 Washington State has just two winning records and one NCAA tournament appearance (2009), and both are very realistic this season. So is a Pac-12 championship, though several other teams, including rival Washington, are very much in contention.
But even if the Cougars fall short in the league race, the NCAA tournament would remain a coveted achievement.
“That’s every single team’s goal every single year,” Greeny said. “But we don’t talk about it a whole lot as far as long-term goals. I think this team can probably do anything, but we’re really focusing on one step at a time. If we take care of (business) every match, ultimately that’s what it will become.”
Getting to the NCAA tournament “would mean the world, honestly,” McDonald said. “It’s been really cool to see the progress from freshman year to this year for me and for the team, and to make the NCAA tournament would just show how much progress we’ve made.”
In recent weeks “the coaches have been letting us enjoy the media and the interviews and all that good stuff, but at the same time we’re still in the gym every day,” she said. “We’re still watching film every day. We’re experiencing some of the glory, but at same time we still have the ‘What’s next?’ mentality and we’re still practicing the same, if not harder.”