Hamilton, ON- Six years ago, when the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team hosted the defending NCAA champion Ohio State Buckeyes, the current squad watching in the stands.
Back in the winter of 2016, the Marauders – an OUA powerhouse – were hosting the Buckeyes. Libero Ben Kerkhoff was then a high school student watching in the standings. So was outside hitter Sam Cooper. Kerkhoff remembers the crazy environment, capped off with a McMaster victory.
“Back then, I said to myself, ‘I want to play in that game’ and here I was getting my opportunity,” he recalled. Last Saturday evening, Kerkhoff and Cooper were now on the court facing off against Ohio State.
Like in 2016, the Burridge Gym was loud and full. Cooper said the excitement for the game had been building up all week, knowing the moment ahead of them and the environment awaiting them.
“Boosts our level of play and our want to win,” Cooper noted. “It’s electric. It’s a great environment to be in and I think that’s what the team feels.”
Marauders head coach Dave Preston has coached in numerous games against Ohio State and other top NCAA competition over the years. The excitement and the butterflies remain for him and the team.
“I think when it gets commonplace, it’s time to turn the page,” he said. “I thought tonight was amazing. Obviously, other than the result and the loss.”
It was a tight back and forth game as the teams traded points and both took the lead at various times.
After a close first set, Ohio State pulled away 25-20. The Marauders held a lead late before the visitors prevailed 26-24.
“It takes a lot of work to get to that point,” Preston noted. “We’ve got to put that work in and then it’s one or two plays down the stretch.”
Preston pointed out how they missed two passes and one serve. Kerkhoff said the team practices late set situations.
“It comes down to very thin margins down the stretch and taking care of those little details is what makes a difference,” he added.
McMaster started the third set strong and won it 28-26 but fell behind early in the fourth set before falling 25-17 and three sets to one.
Preston said Ohio State’s service pressure “eroded our reception” in the fourth set. “When they started to put the pressure on, our guys got a little bit tight and the ball started to get to the net, we couldn’t play,” he noted.
Despite the loss, the team played much better than their tournament in Montreal the previous week, according to Preston.
They were missing some players – including U SPORTS All-Canadian Cooper – as they lost to Sherbrooke and Montreal in straight sets before beating Queen’s 3-2.
“Our team wanted to identify with being a very tough team to beat, communicating well and being a scrappy team,” Kerkhoff said. “I don’t know if we showed that in Montreal to the extend we did tonight.”
Cooper said there are some moving pieces that the team still needs to iron out. It involves getting players back into the lineup after missing games.
“Also details like our high ball management, our ability to be a physical team at the net when we’re out of system and when we’re struggling and to put that ball on to sort of get us back in the game,” he said.
One of the areas they improved on was outside hitting efficiency, according to Preston. “We want to be better in a couple of areas and it takes some time for us,” he added. “But good thing is, last I checked, we’re still in October.”
They are indeed. The Marauders still have a home-and-home against the Toronto Varsity Blues – a rematch of last year’s OUA finals – to close out the preseason. They have the whole regular season ahead of them. They have two home games against NCAA powerhouse Long Beach State in early January as well.
Then comes possibly the OUA playoffs and nationals – which they are hosting. Like the game against the Buckeyes, the crowd should be loud and the Burridge Gym should be full.
“I would say it’s a distant version of the excitement that we experienced for today, for this week,” Cooper said.
The Marauders have hosted nationals before. Like the past Ohio State games, Cooper says the players have watched those nationals games from the stands. Like this year’s Ohio State game, they will now be playing at nationals in front of their home crowd.
They will also have a chance to do what the previous McMaster teams could not. Win a national championship.
“For us to have that opportunity to host that tournament in this gym means a great deal to a lot of the people on this team,” Cooper added. “Excitement and hunger for that win, that championship win. That’s what will fuel our season.”
Featured Image: Estefani Saban-Chacon/McMaster Athletics