Photo by David J. Turner

When the men’s basketball team lost their March quarterfinal MIAC tournament game to St. Olaf, it was not the outcome that Director of Athletics Donnie Brooks was hoping for.

The rowdy fervor inside the packed Leonard Center gym, however, was exactly right.

“I’ve never seen our institution more united than at that moment,” says Brooks. “What sports have the ability to do is pull a collective group of people together and get them behind one mission, and the mission that day was to beat St. Olaf. I’ve seen us engage in spirited debate, but I’ve never seen us collectively cheer on Macalester against a common enemy. That day, in a loss, something special happened. Our core values are community, that is, unite as one; develop, that is, find the lesson; and compete. And that day our community exhibited all three values.”

Since Brooks began leading the department in 2019, his dream has been one of comprehensive success. Success, that is, in all sports and in all spaces—on the playing field, in the classroom, and in the community. By implementing new initiatives and building a culture of collaboration among his coaches, Brooks’s efforts are now paying off. “Teams are gaining traction, and our students are succeeding in all areas of their Macalester lives,” he says.

Brooks started with a process to help his department consider and identify its core values. He says the values they ultimately chose have helped provide clarity for coaches and for student-athletes.

Next came recruiting. Brooks and his coaches have focused on recruiting scholars who want to compete at a high level and are unafraid to push peers who are older. He says “Baby Sharks” has become a popular term for first-year students who expect to play in one of the toughest Division III conferences in the country. These students aren’t familiar with or intimidated by big names such as Gustavus or St. John’s.

Coupled with recruiting has been a focus on student development. His department has made strategic investments in sports psychology, full-time strength and conditioning coaches, and nutrition. And it’s not limited to student-athletes. A new fueling station in the weight room is open to anyone who works out there, so they can grab a snack and refuel during a workout.

A turning point for Macalester was the stoppage of play during fall 2020, says Brooks. One of the unintentional benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic was that all teams did was practice and focus on development. The following spring, when competitions resumed, the Scots went on to win the majority of their contests coming out of the pandemic. And out of that came a belief that they can—and should—win.

Club sports also have adopted a competitive spirit. Both participation and the number of teams have increased since 2020. Department and donor support have allowed clubs to travel farther, purchase better equipment, and start new teams which include women’s wrestling and Quad Ball (formerly Quidditch).

Embedded in student development is leadership. “A promise I make to our recruits is that your development here is going to be intentional,” says Brooks. Scots LEAD is a personal, professional, and leadership development program for Macalester’s student-athletes. Student-athletes take part in leadership labs throughout their careers, and the program leverages partnerships in the broader Twin Cities community, including with alumni; connections across campus with Career Exploration and the Lealtad-Suzuki Center for Social Justice; department-developed initiatives; and team-specific programming.

“I believe Scots LEAD is our strategic advantage,” says Brooks. The leadership skills and confidence student-athletes cultivate to compete to win can be applied to their lives and careers post-Macalester.

This spring alone, several student-athletes excelled. Triple-jumper Journey Amundson ’23 finished fourteenth in the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Student-athletes from the men’s golf team, women’s golf team, women’s tennis team, men’s tennis team, and women’s water polo team were named to Academic All-District Teams. Baseball player Joe Margolis ’23 was named All-MIAC, as was women’s golfer Bailey Lengfelder ’26 (Renton, Wash.). Macalester finished sixth (men) and seventh (women) in the conference all-sports trophy standings. Before the stoppage of play in 2020, both men’s and women’s sports placed last or next-to-last in the prior three years. But over the last two seasons, there has been a steady point increase.

When fall sports kick off next month, the Macalester women’s volleyball team will look to post a winning record for the third year in a row. The men’s football team, which ended its 2022 season by snapping an eleven-game losing streak to St. Olaf, will work to improve over last year’s record of 5–5.

Brooks undertook a winter sabbatical project to learn how other prominent Division III academic institutions are working through challenges and winning at a high level. After visiting Trinity University, Pomona-Pitzer, and Carnegie Mellon University, Brooks shared three takeaways that will help inform his work going forward.

First, presidential and board leadership matters. Like Macalester, “these schools see athletics as excellence in education,” says Brooks. “Why would we want to win at academics and not win at athletics?” Second, facilities matter. Brooks says he’s grateful for a facility like the Leonard Center, not just for student-athletes, but for the wellness of the entire campus community. The third lesson? Success doesn’t happen overnight. “We have to keep working,” he says. “Some of the things we’re doing in investing in our students, investing in our programs, investing in our facilities and other spaces, it’s just going to take a little time. Keep doing great stuff, and in time we’re going to close the gap.”

July 17 2023

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