Emory volleyball head coach Jenny McDowell celebrates with her team during a game in 2017. (Courtesy of Emory Athletics)

Head coach Jenny McDowell, who led the Emory University volleyball team to two NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball championships and 10 University Athletic Association (UAA) championships during her 27 year coaching career, announced her retirement on Nov. 30. 

After a standout four years on the University of Georgia’s volleyball team, McDowell began her coaching career as an assistant coach at her alma mater following graduation. McDowell earned her first head coaching position at Emory University in 1996 and amassed a legendary record, leading the Eagles to 826 victories and 26 consecutive playoff appearances. McDowell said she never saw herself coaching at the Division III level, but said she could not pass up the opportunity to coach at Emory.

“I came to the Emory campus and realized what an incredible place it was,” McDowell said. “I thought this would be the perfect situation for me because I was looking for a top academic school that I felt could attract the best student-athletes in the country and thankfully, that’s what happened. It was just a dream come true.”

McDowell attributed her success to being a relentless worker and instilling the same mentality in her players. McDowell also said recruiting women with great character was an essential part of maintaining the team’s great reputation over multiple decades. McDowell said her approach was emphasizing that volleyball was an outlet for her players outside of the other stressors in their lives. This helped recruit players and keep them invigorated throughout the season.

“People watch our team play, and they realize how much fun they have,” McDowell said. “I always want them to have practice and playing be their sacred space, no matter what has happened during the day or in school that once they come, it’s a joyful place for them.”

Emory volleyball assistant coach Jona Braden, a longtime friend of McDowell, joined the team in January 2018. She described McDowell as a “fearless” and “passionate” coach who deeply cared about the athletes she worked with.

“She grew this program for 27 years, putting the culture and the players in the middle of it,” Braden said. “[She brought] in young women that are driven and also extremely caring about others and seek to keep raising their level of academics and athletics.”

Emory volleyball assistant coach Leah Saunders played under McDowell when Emory won the 2018 Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship and became an assistant coach in June 2021. Saunders said working with McDowell for several years has been an integral part of her development “on and off the court.”

“She brings out the best in everyone and she wants everyone to bring their best,” Saunders said. “She wants to prove that her hard work and the team’s hard work is paying off.”

Braden and Saunders agreed that McDowell’s immeasurable impact on the program will not be forgotten, with Braden noting that her legacy is decades of athletic achievement.

“There are many wins that have happened but it’s really the people that will be her legacy,” Braden said. “These women will be calling upon themselves to be their best selves and then they also are going to empower others that they come across to be their best selves. Jenny was and will always be that link to all of that.”

Saunders continued on the same note, intertwining the volleyball program and McDowell’s name. 

“Jenny McDowell and Emory volleyball are synonymous,” Saunders said. “I know everything that we do and everything that we hold dear is there because of how she’s carried herself and this program for the last 27 years.”

Brianna Jones, who served as Emory’s assistant coach under McDowell, was announced as the new volleyball head coach on Dec. 9. Jones noted that McDowell’s selfless nature is one of her key attributes, which Jones hopes to carry on in her head coaching career. 

“[McDowell] is just one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met,” Jones said. “She is that go-to person toward making others around her better. She pushes you to be better in so many different ways.”

Jones is no stranger to the Emory volleyball program. She served as the team’s assistant coach from 2017-2020 before becoming the head coach of the Stevens Institute of Technology (N.J.) in  January 2021. While working alongside McDowell for three years, they fostered a close relationship, and Jones said that she hopes to incorporate multiple facets of McDowell’s leadership into her own coaching style. 

“Being selfless and putting others before myself is something I want to emulate, and I definitely want to work to make people better, no matter what capacity it is,” Jones said.

Looking forward, McDowell hopes the team will continue to see the pressure of being one of the country’s best programs as a privilege and enjoy working hard toward collective success.

“I wanted to always let my players know how much I cared about them as people,” McDowell said. “I deeply love Emory. It was such an honor to represent our university.”

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Clement Lee (he/him) (24Ox) is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is on the pre-BBA track. Outside the Wheel, Clement can be found reading new books or going on long runs in the woods.

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Madeline Shapiro (she/her) (26C) is from Stamford, Connecticut and is planning on majoring in creative writing and classic civilizations. She enjoys playing low-stakes games of soccer and spending time outdoors, as well as watching as many Premier League games as possible.