Photo by Kyle West
While most students use the holiday break to catch up with family or to get reacquainted with the feeling of sleeping in, the McMaster men’s volleyball team has been playing against top international talent to stay sharp during their time off.
First, they headed to Long Beach, California to play the top National Collegiate Athletic Association volleyball team, Long Beach State, and No. 12 University of California Santa Barbara. This marks the third year that the two teams have spent the holidays playing each other, and for head coach Dave Preston, there is no better way to prepare for the second half of the season. For him, getting experience playing against one of the continent’s best teams with inconsequential competitive cost is extremely beneficial for his team.
“These competitive opportunities are awesome, with almost no competitive cost. Once you establish these relationships it’s a win-win for us,” said Preston. “We get to play at a really high level, and we don’t have to worry about showing our systems and our game plans to a team that we may have to play later on in the season.”
Prior to the trip, the Marauders were undefeated when in international competition, having defeated both Long Beach State and the Ohio State Buckeyes. This time around, the Marauders returned to Canadian soil without a win, yet they still managed to gain so much more.
“We didn’t go out there for results, because if we’re looking for easy wins, we would have scheduled differently,” said Preston. “We did go there to elevate our level of play and we did just that.”
With nine different performance standards that the team measures, ranging from their side out percentage, the number of digs and kills they get, the Marauders saw an increase in all nine performance indicators.
So although the average person who sees the standings and does not see any wins may not understand the benefit of the matches, from the team’s perspective it was a success, especially with just two middles.
The lack of players due to injury is something the Marauders have been struggling with during the first half of their season. Although they boast a 6-2 regular season record, the injuries of Craig Ireland and Matt Passalent have made the first half quite a challenge. But fifth-year Connor Santoni has risen to the occasion, playing both libero and left side.
“We’ve also had to rely a lot on both middles, third-year Josh Ecklund and freshman Tyler Pavelic, who played almost every point in our Long Beach [games],” said Preston. “Now that we’re able to reintroduce are returning guys from injury, it’s been a little bit easier.”
— McMaster Athletics (@McMasterSports) December 30, 2018
The return of Ireland and Passalent had an impact in the Marauders second international tournament this break against top Polish team Jastrzebski Wegiel. Coming out strong with a 3-1 win in their first match the Marauders got back to feeling like themselves. The maroon and grey followed that up with another win, trading sets with JSW until ultimately pulling out the win in five sets.
For Preston, win or lose these international matches give the team lessons that go beyond the court.
“One thing these young men experience is the effect traveling has on your body,” said Preston. “We’re going to have to travel if we’re fortunate in the second half of the season to get into the playoffs.”
With the Ontario University Athletics Championship being hosted by the top team in the East division, and the U Sports National Championship heading to Laval University, understanding the effect traveling has and how to manage hydration and nutrition for their bodies during that travel is crucial.
“We benefited so much from playing against different styles of volleyball,” Preston said. “In the U.S., it is a really serve-and-block kind of system and Long Beach is probably one of the fastest offences we’ve ever seen. While JSW is extremely different, as they are very heavy on the execution. So they’re two different extremes, but having to adjust and know how to play different styles is a great experience for us.”
Through it all, the Marauders still have their main focus on conference matches. With two of the top OUA teams in the West coming into their house Jan. 12 and 13.
“We have to be prepared for that, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Preston. “Every single thing we played over the holidays was in preparation for the Western [University] and Windsor [University] series.”
Never losing focus on their end goal, a national championship, the Marauders are now more prepared and ready to go for the games that matter most.