Hamilton, ON- The McMaster men’s volleyball had scheduled a tough preseason schedule and now they were at the tail end of it.
Their preseason slate featured games against quality teams such as Sherbrooke, Montreal, Queen’s, Ohio State and Toronto.
Entering their final preseason match against Toronto at home, McMaster had a 1-4 record. They had just come off a 3-2 loss to the Varsity Blues a few days earlier. It was a home-and-home rematch of last year’s OUA finals.
The game started off in favour of Toronto as the visitors jumped out to an early lead in the first set. The home team made a late push but fell short 25-23.
McMaster head coach Dave Preston said they missed too many serves in the first set. They improved on that as the game went along.
The Marauders came out strong in the second set before the Varsity Blues pushed back. The teams traded points before Toronto took a 23-21 lead. The home team responded with four straight points to close out the set. Mateusz Wlodarski and Brendan Mills had kills (set up by Robbie Fujisawa) before Tyler Pavelic got a block to end it.
The third set was also close before McMaster pulled away to win 28-26. The Marauders then won the fourth set 25-20 to win the game 3-1.
The team has played in tight sets previously against their preseason opponents. They lost close sets in their losses to Sherbrooke, Montreal and Ohio State. Against Queen’s and Toronto, they won them.
The key to closing out those sets comes from mentality.
“When you’re really thinking about volleyball, you get yourself in trouble sometimes,” Mills said. “You just get into a flow state. You don’t think about volleyball. You just play like you know how to play and I think we did a really good job.”
Composure is a big part of Mills’ development. He said it’s something he’s working on from his first season last year to now. He said his time this past summer with the Canadian U21 national team has helped as well. “Just want to know my zone, just play,” he noted. “Confident in my abilities.”
Mills played in all four sets and had 10 kills, 11 points, four digs and a hitting percentage of 0.292. With outside hitter Sam Cooper out, the team moved Wlodarski (who plays the same position as Mills) around a bit, according to Preston. He said that Mills is trying to work his way into the lineup.
“Brendan’s just a tremendous athlete,” Preston said. “He just needs to play a little bit more but he needs to earn those opportunities. They’re not going to be given to him.”
The head coach praised their depth and versatility. He credited middle Tyler Pavelic (13 points and a 0.818 hitting percentage) setter Robbie Fujisawa’s performances. Fujisawa had 32 assists, nine digs and two solo blocks.
“I thought he really really dialed it in,” Mills said of Fujisawa. “His sets were all in good spots. He really gave us…good opportunities, put the other team in a really hard position.”
One of Fujisawa’s blocks came late in the fourth set. His teammates on the court and on the bench erupted in celebration. “Huge when Robbie gets a block,” Mills noted. “Everyone’s pretty excited.”
The Marauders showed that excitement as they clinched the win and did their team circle celebratory dance on the court afterwards.
The close out the preseason on a high after games against top competition. Sherbrooke (third), Toronto (fifth), Montreal (sixth) and Queen’s (tenth) are all in the first U SPORTS top 10 ranking of the season. So are the Marauders at number four.
Mills said the team has grown and improved over that stretch. “Every single guy on the team is starting to come into their own and find our roles, find our energy,” he noted.
Preston said they got better because of the schedule they played. “Our record didn’t really reflect a lot in terms of wins and losses but that level of play I thought we had to respond to,” he added. “You were going to get your hat handed to you.”
Among those improvements evident in the final Toronto game were their block defence and their serving pressure, according to Preston. Their execution and level of play as well.
Their depth was also on display. Fourteen players played against Ohio State. Thirteen players saw the court in their first game against the Varsity Blues. Fourteen in the second game. Preston said they’re going 10-12 players deep into the OUA season.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “Having 12 and maybe even more…that we could have is going to play dividends down the road. I think it was a pretty good investment for us.”
Featured Image: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics