MacDonald thankful to be back

  • After guiding Frontier to 14 consecutive WMass crowns and counting, Sean MacDonald is now coaching the Athol boys junior varsity team and happy to be doing it. file photo

Published: 4/15/2019 9:27:41 PM

Sean MacDonald may be the most over-qualified junior varsity coach in the state of Massachusetts this spring.

He may also be one of the most appreciative people just for having the opportunity to coach the Athol High School junior varsity boys’ volleyball team this spring. 

Why would someone who was not only the Athol varsity coach last spring, but who also has 14 consecutive WMass Division 3 girls volleyball titles (and counting), 11 state championship appearances and nine state titles at Frontier – and is a member of the Massachusetts Girls Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame – be excited to be coaching at the junior varsity level, you ask? 

Because you find a new appreciation for many things after cheating death.

Seeing MacDonald on any sideline is enough to bring a smile to your face. It certainly didn’t seem like MacDonald would be anywhere near a sideline back on Jan. 8 when he dialed 911. MacDonald hadn’t been feeling well since December, but assumed he was mired in a cold he just couldn’t kick. Even as family members and friends told him to get checked out, he brushed it off, saying it was just a cold. As it became more and more difficult for him to breathe, he eventually went to a doctor and was prescribed antibiotics but still no change in his health.

Things got bad enough that simply walking short distances would have MacDonald out of breath, so on Jan. 8, he dialed 911 and was taken to Athol Hospital. It didn’t take doctors long to figure out that something was wrong, and a CT scan of his lungs gave it away. MacDonald was informed that he had a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot elsewhere in the body breaks apart and travels through the heart and to the lungs. 

“I had a sub-massive embolism,” MacDonald said. “I had clots in both lungs, and quite a few of them. The specialist at Baystate said, ‘You’re lucky to be alive. God is not done with you yet, that’s the only reasonable explanation as to why you’re alive.’”

MacDonald was sent to Baystate in Springfield, and when the doctor came to see him, instructed MacDonald to lift up the covers to take a look at his legs. MacDonald informed the doctor that his issue was in his lungs, but the doctor insisted.

“He noticed a little swelling in my right leg. Turns out that’s where the clots started and pieces of it were breaking off, traveling up through my veins, through my heart and into my lungs,” MacDonald said. “I’m really lucky that I had symptoms. Some people’s first symptom is to drop dead.”

MacDonald was put on anticoagulants (which help thin the blood) and also had an IVC filter placed in his chest. Despite finding the source of the clot, there was still no reason discovered by doctors as to why it happened. MacDonald hadn’t had surgery, hadn’t had any injuries. To this day, no explanation has been given.

After a week in the hospital, MacDonald returned home but was still not feeling great. Doctors told him it could take as long as four to six months to get back to normal.

The diagnosis left MacDonald at a crossroads regarding the boys volleyball season. With just two months until the season was to start, MacDonald had to make a decision. After coaching Athol varsity for the past two springs, MacDonald felt he would not be strong enough to return. He made the decision to email Athol athletic director Dan Bevis and vice principal (and former athletic director) Dave King, to inform them of the situation and explain that he was unable to coach.

“It killed me to do it so close to the season,” MacDonald said. “I just didn’t feel like I could be at practice every day. Didn’t feel like I could take bus rides from Athol to Westfield and be in the gym every day.”

After facing a life-threatening situation, MacDonald said he was also struggling mentally. 

“They tell you that you almost died and suddenly every little twinge you are thinking ‘am I going to die? What’s that?’” MacDonald said.

MacDonald finally began to feel better psychologically as tests began to reveal that he was in fact healing. While he is still at risk, he said he will happily take a pill once a day if it means living an otherwise normal life. MacDonald is also looking to drop a couple pounds, and he said that cutting out soda should go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

“I needed to drop a couple pounds anyway,” he said. “Pepsi is probably holding meetings trying to figure out why Mountain Dew sales have dropped in the Northeast.”

MacDonald was happy to hear that girls junior varsity coach Harrison West-Mather was going to assume the varsity boys job this season. The two are actually linked. Harrison’s father is Andy Mather, the girls volleyball coach at Bourne High School, which coincidentally is the team that eliminated MacDonald’s Frontier girls in the state semifinals back in the fall. West-Mather is a senior at UMass and is likely to be only a one-year fix.

“He stepped up and saved the team, the season, maybe the program,” MacDonald said. 

As the season approached, MacDonald did feel well enough to get into the gymnasium and he offered West-Mather some help. Eventually, West-Mather asked MacDonald if he would be comfortable filling the junior varsity post, which had gone unfilled. MacDonald thought about it over a weekend and early last week he texted Bevis to say he was interested. By mid-week, he was officially hired.

“I’m hoping I can figure it out,” MacDonald joked about coaching at the junior varsity level. “Seriously, it has been an adjustment. At the varsity level, you don’t have to teach some of the things I’m teaching these guys.

“It is fun, but it is different,” MacDonald continued. “I have a new appreciation for (my assistants at Frontier), who lay a lot of the framework for me. This is about teaching people how to pass and how to set and how to serve. We have a really young JV team, and should be a middle school team. Our one returning veteran is an eighth-grader (Holden Giroud). It’s fun, but it’s different.”

Imagine if Gary Mullins or Tom Suchanek suddenly began coaching junior varsity and that is what you have in Athol.

“I’m passionate about the sport, I love the sport, so when I was feeling better and could help, I decided to go for it,” MacDonald said. “Whoever is reading this article, I think you should play volleyball, too. I’ve met so many people and been all over the country because of volleyball. It’s changed my life.”

It’s a life that thankfully continues for MacDonald who continues to heal and is doing better every day. On Monday, the Athol junior varsity team, which is still winless, won its first set of the season in a 2-1 loss to Chicopee. Perhaps a sign of MacDonald already making a difference.

“I’m thankful to be able to coach somebody and still be on the right side of the grass,” MacDonald concluded. “And to anyone reading, if you think something is wrong with you, you should probably get it checked out.”

Good advice from a Hall of Famer.


Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder Sports Editor. His email address is

Greenfield Recorder

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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