The players and coaches exited the locker room, some teary-eyed and all somber from the sudden reality that their season was over. An 80-56 loss at the hands of the magnificent Carleton Ravens earlier had ended the Marauders’ playoff run – their longest since 2006 – and the CIS careers of at least one player.
But the despondency that surrounded the team in the hours after the loss is gone. There are recruits to be signed and offseason workouts to be planned and, most of all, a resounding optimism around the team’s culture.
With a most of the team’s core expected to return next year, including OUA West Rookie of the Year Adam Presutti and fellow All-Rookie Team member Aaron Redpath, the future is decidedly bright for the Marauders, something that became abundantly clear as the team carved a late-season winning streak.
“The biggest part of our success was just realizing that we are national contenders. Coach [Amos] Connolly has been telling us all year that we had the potential to be a top team in the country,” said captain Victor Raso, who last week was named an OUA West First Team All-Star.
Mac finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, earned a first-round playoff bye and won their OUA quarterfinal against Windsor, a team that had bested the Marauders twice earlier in the year. But Raso said it was an early February win against Laurier that sent the message that the Maroon and Grey were a team on the rise.
At the time, the Golden Hawks were ranked no. 5 in the CIS. The Marauders, previously dismissed as too young and lacking in firepower to pose a threat, weren’t making any noise in the CIS rankings.
“I think our win at Laurier was our eye-opener to how good we actually are,” said Raso. The Marauders won that game 92-82 on the strength of 26 points from Pressuti, 19 from Raso and a stifling defence that would soon become their trademark.
More wins, both on the road and at home, would follow, as did votes in the national rankings. By the time McMaster took on the Ravens last weekend, they were ranked no. 8, the highest they’ve been in the Connolly era.
Of course, rankings don’t matter in playoff games, and Carleton’s overwhelming attack put a sudden damper on the good times for Mac. After the Marauders scrapped for the first half and trailed just 53-43 in the second, the Ravens put on a display of sharp three-point shooting and vigorous defence to pull away for the win.
“When you play Carleton you have to play your game and play it incredibly hard,” said Raso, who returned to the lineup after missing four games with a concussion but shot just 4-for-12. “They don’t have guys taking heat checks or any flair to their game. It’s just the definition of discipline.”
“For us, this stings. You feel like you got your butt kicked. But it has to be the next step in a learning situation,” said Connolly. “There are lessons to be learned.”
The Ravens went on to win the Wilson Cup as OUA Champions the next night after crushing the Ryerson Rams 82-39.
Raso said he’s hoping he and his team will take those lessons to heart.
“We think we’re as talented as any team in the country and we want to be the national champions next year and I think we can.”
The news isn’t all optimistic for the Marauders. Forward Cam Michaud is likely done his CIS career after four years on the team. The 6’6” Grimsby native was a Second Team All-Star last year and a key component of this year’s success.
“Cam’s leadership, especially through these last two years, has re-developed a culture of winning and excellence that this program will have again in the future,” said Raso.
There are replacements waiting in the wings for Michaud, however, with rookie forward Nathan McCarthy and second-year big Taylor Black showing signs of real progress this year.
There are no guarantees when it comes to improving as a basketball team. This year’s role players will need to step into larger roles, especially when Carleton – who are favoured to win their eighth national title in 10 years this weekend – won’t be going anywhere as the OUA mogul.
But the Marauders have a lot of assets on their side – talent, youth and now experience to name a few. And though it might not have seemed like it after their loss to the Ravens, there’s a whole lot of optimism with this team too.