The Emory volleyball team’s 2016 season came to a close Thursday, Nov. 17, when the Eagles fell to Calvin College (Mich.) in the NCAA D-III Tournament Quarterfinals. With a career record of 686-151, Head Coach Jenny McDowell has been an outstanding leader within Emory. The Wheel spoke with McDowell for a final reflection on this season, discussing her background, proud moments, Rise-n-Dine and volleyball.
The Emory Wheel: Where did you grow up, and when did you start playing volleyball?
Jenny McDowell: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., in a really small town outside the city. I started playing volleyball in eighth grade. Basketball was really my primary sport, but I fell in love with volleyball, so eighth grade was when I really made that switch. It was my high school volleyball coach who watched me play basketball, who said, ‘okay, she’s probably not fast enough to continue playing basketball at a high level, so I better talk her into something else.’ I couldn’t dribble very well [and] I couldn’t shoot very well, so I thought I didn’t have a great career here, so better try something different. And that’s when I fell in love with volleyball.
EW: When did you decide you wanted to get into coaching?
JM: I played volleyball at the University of Georgia and I went on to get my master’s degree. The only way I could afford to get my master’s was to be a graduate assistant volleyball coach. So I said, “OK, I would put in my time and then go into the business world.”When I started coaching as a GA [graduate assistant], I just fell in love with [coaching volleyball]. I was given an opportunity by the head coach of Georgia … I said I’d [coach for] a couple years, and now it’s been 27 years total. I was a marketing major, so I thought I would go into corporate America or some sort of sports marketing or administration, but I ended up going into coaching. I love being around the athletes and being part of their lives.
EW: What brought you to Emory?
JM: I was on my seventh year of coaching at Georgia, and I decided that I really wanted to go and coach at a great academic school. When the job at Emory opened up in 1996, I applied for it, and supposedly there wasn’t any way they were going to hire me. I was the cheap interview down the street. Rumor had it I had no chance of getting the job. [But the job] was offered to me the night of my interview. I didn’t even ask them what they were going to pay me — that’s how much I wanted the job. I got a call back 15 minutes later ask[ing] if I wanted to know how much I would be paid. I was so excited about the job I forgot to ask what they were going to pay me or if there were going to be benefits and that sort of stuff.
EW: What’s your greatest achievement in volleyball?
JM: I think going to the NCAA tournament 21 straight years in a row to me exemplifies how many great athletes we’ve had over 21 years. That’s the hardest part of coaching a program: having success over a long period of time. Every team is going to have a down year, whether you have an injury or something else happens. But to go to the NCAA tournament 21 straight years to me represents how many incredible student-athletes we’ve had.
EW: Can you name your favorite moment from this season?
JM: I would say beating Washington University [in St. Louis (Mo.)] on their home court in front of about 1,100 people. All the teams were there, hanging from the rafters. The winning basketball team was 10 feet from the court, screaming. To beat them in the [UAA] semifinals on their home court with all of the fans there is probably my favorite moment of the season.
EW: When were you most disappointed as a coach?
JM: I think it was last year losing in the regional finals. Last year, we had a really solid team and had such high expectations. Losing in that regional final with what I thought was one of the best setters in the country, and to lose in such disappointing fashion was really such a disappointment and a sad moment for me — sad for me because I was sad for the team.
EW: What do you like most about Emory?
JM: I think the sense of community on our campus. You can walk on campus and everyone is really proud about what Emory represents and what we as a university stand for. We not only are one of the best universities in the country, but for me we have the greatest community in the country — supportive of one another, encouraging, to seek out what’s important and have no barriers. The community and the support is just incredible.
EW: What’s your favorite place to eat at near campus?
JM: I walk down to the Village every day, so I would say probably Rise-n-Dine. I love to sit at the bar and catch up on the news. The people at the bar know exactly what I want. They love volleyball and love to talk to me about volleyball. I always get two eggs with fruit and whole wheat toast.
EW: What’s the most stressful moment you’ve ever had coaching?
JM: In 2008, when we won the national championship. We were down two games to nothing in the national semifinals. We came back and tied it 2-2, and were actually down in the last set 11-3 and came back and won. And I literally couldn’t breathe for the final few points.
EW: You’ve obviously taught your players a lot. What’s something a player has taught you?
JM: I think collectively as a group, Emory student-athletes and Emory students in general bring their best every single day, and that has really inspired me to bring my best to practice every day. It is the most inspiring group of people that I could ever imagine coaching and, as a leader, I know that I have to bring my best in every capacity because I know they are going to do the same thing.
EW: What’s the future for Emory volleyball?
JM: I think as successful as we’ve been in the past 21 years … the best is yet to come. I want this program to graduate great, confident young women and to continue to compete for national championships every year and prepare them for the rest of their lives. The future’s so bright. We have a great core of leaders and an exciting group of young players and an incredible recruiting class coming in next year … we feel really good about the freshmen who applied and have an outstanding chance of being admitted.