HAMILTON, ON – The Burridge Gym was packed – as it had been for McMaster’s two previous playoff games. Like the previous two games, the visiting Toronto Varsity Blues provided a stiff test.
After the Queen’s Gaels captured the past two Forsyth Cups (OUA titles), there was bound to be a new winner between the Marauders and the Varsity Blues. McMaster head coach Dave Preston’s side had captured the provincial crown six years in a row before the recent Queen’s success. Now they had a chance at home to take it back.
Their hopes of winning wouldn’t come easy though as the Varsity Blues – who ousted Queen’s in the semis – started strong. The teams traded service errors to start the game before Toronto showed their strength in their attack and blocks. U of T would often put together two or three man walls to thwart the home side’s lineup of attackers.
The score was deadlocked all throughout the set as McMaster found success at times getting through Toronto’s wall. Mateusz Wlodarski scored an ace as the ball hit the net and just dropped over. Maxime Gratton scored a kill through three blockers. Toronto pulled away late – with kills from four different players – before McMaster battled back to tie it at 24. However, an attack error by Gratton and a kill by Evan Falardeau – who hammered the ball through Mac’s blockers – ended the set.
The Marauders picked up their play in set two, converting on their attacks to go ahead 10-4. Part of the reason they went ahead was due to the serving power of Cooper, the second-year outside hitter with a powerful swing.
He demonstrated his power and accuracy, scoring four straight aces in a row. Some hit the back corner while others were simply too powerful for Toronto’s players to handle. One was hit so hard, the ball hit a U of T player and ricocheted off the ceiling as the crowd applauded. As has been the case many times this season, he and fellow OUA All-Star Gratton paced the team in kills and points.
The home side continued their attack with help from Wlodarski, Wojtek Kraj and Navreet Suhan. A Davis Young service error clinched the set for McMaster 25-14. The third set unfolded similar to the second, with the Marauders getting out to an early lead. Mac stretched the advantage from 16-10 to 22-13 as Gratton scored four kills in a row for Mac at one point. A kill by Cooper and an attack error by Mitchell Neuert ended the set as the home side creeped closer to that OUA title.
In hindsight, the fourth set was arguably the best one, with the visitors refusing to back down as their Forsyth Cup hopes were on the line. McMaster took an early edge like they did before but Toronto stormed back. With Zane Grossinger serving, they forced Mac into four straight attack errors. Falardeau and Hunter Arulpragasam scored points to keep a narrow lead for them.
The set had the intensity and quality one would expect of an OUA finals, with both teams going back-and-forth. Mac fought back to regain the lead late but then Toronto did the same. After U of T’s Jakson Paterson tied it once again at 26, the Marauders would close it out for good thanks to an attack error by Falardeau and a kill by Cooper. Fittingly, he was set up by star setter Robbie Fujisawa who notched 46 of his team’s 52 assists.
The team mobbed each other as Cooper scored the winning point before breaking out into their customary team-circle dance. They smiled and embraced with the OUA banner. For some – like captain and senior libero Jordan Pereira – it represented reaching the Ontario mountaintop once again. For the younger players such as Cooper, Gratton and Fujisawa, it was their first OUA title. Now they set their sights on a bigger goal ahead.
Nationals Outlook: Will Trinity Western be Topped?
Despite all of McMaster’s success and their undefeated record, they are not the top team in the U Sports men’s volleyball rankings. That would be the Trinity Western Spartans, who captured their seventh Canada West championship over the Alberta Golden Bears. Both teams will be heading out to the University of Manitoba for nationals.
Trinity Western and Alberta have also accomplished what McMaster hasn’t historically: winning the U Sports national title, aka the Tantramar trophy. For all their provincial success, Preston and his side have yet to win nationals.
The Spartans have won three of the last four national titles (it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021). The Golden Bears won it back-to-back before that in 2013 and 2014 while UBC won it in 2018. The theme of the results is Canada West dominance. The conference has taken the national crown every season but once since 1995. That outlier was Laval on its home court in 2013.
With the championship hosted in Canada West territory this year, the Marauders face a tough task to break that Canada West dominance and make history for their program.
Featured Image: Colin Wouda/McMaster Athletics