The results don’t make for the most impressive reading, but the Marauders believe that their experience at the EBWM Invitational in Saskatoon will help them transition well into the second half of their conference campaign.
Matched up against three of the toughest teams in the country in an event that spanned Jan. 5-7, including the 2011 national championship finalists from Calgary and the perennial Quebecois powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or, McMaster emerged from the prairies with a bronze medal to their name.
After consecutive losses to the Rouge et Or, Dinos, and the host Saskatchewan Huskies, the Marauders rebounded strongly to claim the consolation match in four sets versus Calgary.
However, coach Dave Preston argues that the progress shown by his squad over the course of the compressed three-day event is more important for the Marauders’ long-term plans than their results.
He believes that much of McMaster’s struggle to find form in the early matches comes as a result of their scant preparation time.
“Every event is unique and this one was definitely unique for us, because we only had three days of prep work available to us,” said Preston of the Saskatoon tournament. “Laval for instance kept their guys until the 22nd and brought them back on the 27th. Our December was a bit different, although I would say that we probably had the most productive December in as long as I can remember.
“That’s a pretty critical time in your season. You can fall behind pretty quickly, you can stay steady, or you can actually move forward. And I think that we actually moved forward this December. The guys got the break that they needed but we also kept the rust off.”
Having to balance the need for holiday training with the rehabilitation demands of a team that was suffering from a litany of injuries at semester’s end, Preston kept the workload light for his charges and required only that they each attend six of 12 workouts scheduled between Dec. 6 and 22.
While this setup worked wonders for the hobbled members of the squad, it understandably bred a degree of rust in the Marauders’ collective game. However, despite their sluggish start in Saskatoon, Preston was pleased by the rapid improvement he witnessed over the course of the three-day event.
“I wasn’t too concerned coming in with only three days of preparation, because we did have such a strong December,” said Preston. “But you could tell that within a competitive model, it had caught up with us a little bit.
“In the first match that we played against Laval, our middles started off pretty slowly. That’s a volume thing. Our middles need a lot of training volume because it’s such a precision-based skill. If you don’t have the training volume underneath it, you can’t fake that.
“The nice thing for us was that our middles got progressively better all weekend to the point that I think we hit 65 percent against Calgary down the middle – up from the minus-22 percent we were at against Laval.”
In addition to the play of McMaster’s central players, Preston noted a marked improvement in his squad’s ball movement from the serve-receive position, and a steady increase in their defensive efficiency.
Equally important as the on-court improvements to the Marauders’ game witnessed over the course of the Christmas break was the desperately needed rehabilitation time that the post-exam period allowed. While nagging issues remain, the team saw the re-entry of several players into the squad’s rotation, including outsides Jeremy Groenveld and Brendan Dennis.
“Luckily we have one of the best physio clinics in the world right here in our own building,” said Preston. “We’re pretty fortunate in that way and our guys are making full use of those facilities.
“I think we’re getting healthier, but that’s a battle that we’re going to have to fight all season long – as is everybody else. In a six or seven-month season, these guys get beat up. The difference between ‘hurt’ and ‘injured’ will be substantial for us.”
One of the by-products of playing with a widely wounded lineup has been a fairly frequent policy of rotation among the Marauders’ players, and that practice is a double-edged sword of sorts according to Preston. The coach knows full well that he must maximize the benefits of a revolving squad while attempting to minimize the cost to the team’s performance.
“The luxury of moving your lineup around is that it creates good depth for you, but the cost of it is that it doesn’t allow you to be as consistent,” said the Marauder bench boss. “What we have to work on now is how we can become more consistent and still be able to manage those personnel changes.”
The maroon and grey will continue to strive for that dependable form as their conference schedule resumes with a weekend doubleheader on Jan. 13 and 14.
McMaster plays host to the RMC Paladins and Queen’s Gaels as part of the school’s Marauder Weekend celebration. Both matches are set to begin at 8 p.m.