It is not a common thing among opposing indoor volleyball players to look forward to a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. The UW Field House is one of the most difficult places to play in college volleyball, a 7,052-seat arena that averaged, in 2018, 6,827 tickets sold per night, a school record and second only to Nebraska.
And yet Mac May was genuinely giddy when the draw was released for this weekend’s NCAA Tournament, where on Friday her UCLA Bruins will play Notre Dame in Madison, where the winner will likely play those mighty Badgers.
May lives for that atmosphere, and it’s no wonder, really.
That atmosphere is home.
Well, close to it, anyway. As close as May, named this week the Pac-12 Player of the Year, has ever come.
A native of Dubuque, Iowa, a city sitting on the Missouri River that is nowhere close to any university on the Bruins’ schedule, May hasn’t played in front of a true home crowd since she left for Southern California in 2017. The nearest to Dubuque she’s played was in a pre-season tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska, this past August, where the Bruins dropped six straight sets to No. 5. Nebraska and No. 1 Baylor and returned home. Even then, it was a six-hour drive from Dubuque to Lincoln.
Madison, in relative terms, is hardly a trip at all, just an hour-and-a-half from the house in which May, a 6-foot-3 junior outside hitter, was raised.
“I’ve been talking to my family and they’ve been telling everybody,” said May, who led UCLA to an 18-11 season with a team-high 458 kills and 35 aces, in an interview with Bryan Fenley. “The whole city of Dubuque will probably be there. I’m just so excited because people that I’ve grown up with, all my relatives and my parents’ friends, all these people have never seen me play college volleyball in person.
“So I will get to play an hour and a half from home and I’ve been trying to get all these names on the list. My sister told me today that at least 30 people will be there and that’s just people she could count off the top of her head. So many people have been reaching out so I’m so excited to be playing this close to home. These people who have raised me finally get to come watch me.”
And they are not the only ones who get the pleasure of seeing something new. In October, May’s sister, Morgan, had a son, Frederick. Two months later, Mac will finally get to meet her nephew — who will, whether he knows it or not, be cheering on the Bruins this weekend — for the first time.
“I’ll finally get to meet my baby nephew and I’ll get to see my grandma,” May said. “This is literally the best thing that could have ever happened.”
She’s not looking ahead. Not yet. Everybody wants a shot to take down the Badgers, but first come the Fighting Irish, a team that went 19-9 and posted notable wins over programs such as Purdue and Michigan.
Yet it is undeniably difficult to blame May for her enthusiasm over a road trip most do not much look forward to. It’s been quite a windfall of a month: Pac-12 Player of the Year, NCAA Tournament, a trip home.
“I really just tried this season to be completely bought in,” May said. “No matter what happens this season, whether we’re winning or losing, just go for it. And we keep getting better, and we keep working hard. Every practice I try to come in with the attitude of ‘Hey let’s get better today.’ And then on the court there’s so many great players who can hit the ball as hard as you can and then on top of that, just to be a good teammate.
“I think this year I’ve really tried to take on a more leadership role. When my teammates go up and get a huge kill, celebrate that because that is amazing. Or when our libero makes an amazing dig, ‘Good job, do that again!’ We’ll celebrate that every time. I just want us to do so well.”