Jeff Tam / Silhouette Staff

Fraser Caldwell

Sports Editor

It’s been an eventful preseason for the Marauders, and one chalked full of high-profile competition.

For their part, the members of the Maroon and Grey will be hoping that such preparation puts them in good stead as they face up to the beginning of their conference campaign on Oct. 21.

The defending OUA champions have tested the waters against some of the toughest squads in the nation as they look to fend off the challengers for their provincial crown.

Those teams included the national champions from Trinity Western and provincial rival Windsor Lancers, before the Marauders closed their exhibition schedule at the Coast-to-Coast Classic tournament at Queen’s.

The inaugural event served as an opportunity for many of Canada’s strongest volleyball powers to acclimatize themselves with Kingston and the venue that will host this season’s CIS Championship tournament.

In an eight-team field, McMaster would finish sixth after finishing 1-2 in the three-stage event. The first knockout match saw the Marauders lose a four-set decision to the UBC Thunderbirds and drop into the consolation rounds.

Here, the Maroon and Grey dealt a straight-set defeat to the Montreal Carabins, before losing the fifth-place match in five seesaw sets to the Western Mustangs.

Despite the mixed results, the Marauders’ veteran outside hitter Kevin Stevens was adamant that the Kingston tournament was a positive experience for he and his teammates.

“It was a good weekend for us, just because we’ve been working on so many things,” said Stevens. “And it was a good opportunity to play a number of teams that we’re hoping we’ll see again in Kingston at the CIS tournament.

“We were able to see and get a lot out of them and learn their tendencies. And we learned a lot about ourselves in the process.”

Part of that learning process has involved adapting to a new style of play, brought on by the addition of setter T.J. Sanders to the lineup and the stated goal of coach Dave Preston to play a quicker brand of volleyball.

Preston and his team know that such a stylistic adjustment is necessary if the Marauders are to compete with the Western powerhouses that have traditionally dominated the CIS game.

And Sanders – who began his varsity career with the illustrious program at the University of Manitoba – will be the creative engine powering that change.

For his part, Stevens indicates that the adoption of the quicker style has taken some time, but argues that once perfected, the system will cause headaches throughout the OUA.

“It’s been our first experience with T.J. on court in a game situation and we’re running a few different things, with our hitters coming in from different angles,” said Stevens. “So at first, when you put it into a game situation it takes some adjustment, and we just have to make sure we don’t move back into the slower style.

“I think our speed’s definitely going to help us out and I don’t think there’s going to be too many teams that will be able to catch up with us at our pace.”

One of the most promising performers throughout the preseason has been rookie Dan Groenveld, who has moved firmly out of his older brother’s shadow and established himself as a legitimate threat on the outside of McMaster’s formation.

Stevens believes that the younger Groenveld’s play has been indicative of a team-wide dependability that gives McMaster crucial depth.

“I’m pretty impressed with the way he (Groenveld) is playing and really all of our rookies have stepped up,” said the third-year hitter. “There’s so much depth on our team, especially on the outside, so that if someone is having a bit of an off day you can throw another guy in and they’ve been ready.

“Nobody’s disappointed if they don’t start because we all know that we all deserve shots.”

The turnover in the team this year has seen the departure of two of the Marauders’ on-court leaders, in libero Josh Lichty and all-star middle Tyler Santoni.

However, Stevens indicates that several veterans have quickly stepped into that void, including himself, fifth-year hitter Jeremy Groenveld, and Sanders.

Most importantly, the Manitoban attacker points out that each member of the team has something to offer.

“It’s really not just a matter of younger guys looking up to the older guys,” said Stevens. “It’s a matter of everyone helping each other out.”

The upcoming opening of the conference season sees the Marauders thrown straight into the proverbial fire, as they welcome divisional powers Windsor and Western to the Burridge Gym.

Last season, those same two teams dealt the Maroon and Grey consecutive defeats to kick off the campaign and forced them to fight uphill to gain OUA supremacy.

Stevens indicates that the Marauders are determined to avoid the same fate this time around, and will be aided by having already played the teams in question.

“We definitely don’t forget what happened last season,” said Stevens. “We went by a ‘worst-to-first’ mentality. But we don’t want to repeat that, we’d like to be on top all the way through and set the tone right away.

“We learned a lot from Western this past weekend and we’ve seen Windsor too. It was nice to be able to see both teams before we play them in conference, and I think we’ll come roaring out of the gates this weekend.”

Marauder fans will be hoping as much as well, and will get to see the early litmus test on home soil. The Maroon and Grey will open their 2011-12 campaign against the Windsor Lancers on Oct. 21, before playing the Western Mustangs the following day.

Both games are slated to get underway at 8 p.m.

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