“We’re a very gritty team”: McMaster battles for tough victories over Nipissing 

Hamilton, ON- On both occasions, when it looked like the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team was about to sweep the Nipissing Lakers in straight sets at home, the Lakers battled back. 

McMaster ended up winning both games by three sets to one but the sets were close. Nipissing took the third set each time and came close to taking more. 

In their first game on Nov. 25, the Marauders took the first set 25-19, the second set 25-18 before dropping the third set 25-20. The home team bounced back to win the final set 25-20. 

“It wasn’t probably one of our finest performances but we battled,” Marauders head coach Dave Preston noted. 

One thing that stood out was Nipissing’s serving. The Lakers had eight service aces and hit several quality serves. Preston pointed out their variety in their serving. 

The Marauders adjusted as the game went along. Libero Matthew Rugosi said they had good serving pressure while their passing increased. “We were able to run a better offence out of it,” he noted. 

McMaster had 32 assists with setter Robbie Fujisawa leading the way with 25. 

By the time their second game against Nipissing came around, the Marauders were better prepared to defend against their serves. The Lakers had only one service ace. Preston praised outside hitter Maxime Gratton and libero Ben Kerkhoff for handing the service pressure. Communication was an important factor. 

“When the ball’s coming that fast, it’s all decision making,” Preston said. “They’re not serving the ball at us. They’re serving the ball in the seams so there’s two guys who think that they can play it so it’s a really, really fast decision that has to be made.” 

It was still a close game as Nipissing nearly won the first set (losing 25-23), won the third set and played McMaster close in the other two sets. Preston said the Lakers were much improved – including in their blocking. The visitors had 11 blocks to McMaster’s six. 

The Marauders had contributions from players off the bench as well. Twelve players saw the court in the first game while 11 did in the second game – each playing at least two sets. 

Earlier in the season, Preston talked about how he wanted to have depth with the team during the season. The Marauders have had to do so with injuries and players in and out of the lineup – including outside hitter Sam Cooper for the Nipissing games. 

With the turnover, it means players are coming in and filling different positions. Matthew Rugosi pointed out how his brother Peter, an outside hitter, came in as a substitute for one of the middles. “Every time he went in, he made a difference for sure,” Rugosi said. “We’ve had some subs and they play like they’re ready.” 

Maxime Gratton had eight kills, four digs and 10 points against Nipissing on Nov. 26 (Photo: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics)

The Marauders closed out the sets with crucial and timely points. Gratton called it a grind. For him, it’s about not thinking about the points lost. 

“Okay, this happened,” he described. “We just got to get back, reset, don’t think about the loss. You know, get back to the basics and do what we do best.” 

The Marauders have two games at home against the Queen’s Gaels to close out the first semester. McMaster beat them 3-2 in the pre-season as both teams enter the game nationally ranked. 

After each game, the team meets up to talk about what they can gain from it. “The main thing that we identify is toughness and gritty,” Gratton said. “We’re a very gritty team.” 

Their toughness and grit was on display as they battled a strong Nipissing side. It’s built during battles in practices throughout the week as well. 

“It’s intense to a point where like guys, ‘we got to slow down a little bit’,” Preston noted. “We’re getting used to that but it’s exhausting. We have to find that much. It’s tiring and our schedule hasn’t been kind to us.”

Gratton said it comes from the players they recruit as well. “We say that we recruit character and that comes from I feel like that’s a big part of the character we recruit,” he added. 

Their toughness also comes from internal accountability and team culture, according to Gratton. It comes from always trying to stay tough and gritty. “You’ll never see a guy chicken out on a pass or something like that,” he noted. 

Through that stretch of intense practices and games comes the task of managing it all. After the Queen’s games, the Marauders host NCAA powerhouse Long Beach State for a pair of games in January before visiting tough conference foes Brock and Toronto as the season continues. 

It’s about players managing their injuries and their health in general, according to Preston. “Your best ability is your availability,” he said.

“That’s a challenge but we’ll manage it this week with Queen’s,” he added. “We’ll be ready to go.” 

Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics

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