Hamilton, ON- Back when she was in grade 12, Ana Strbac went to the McMaster Marauders women’s volleyball end of year banquet in 2019.
Strbac was a recruit back then, about to enter her first season at McMaster – not knowing everything that would lie ahead of her. At the banquet, she remembers some of the graduating seniors talking about their experiences.
“Saying, ‘oh on this team, you’re going to meet people who are [going to be] the bridesmaids at your wedding’,” she recalled. “I remember hearing that and I was like ‘Oh that’s not going to be me because I already have friends from high school.’ But it’s just so true.”
Skip forward over three years later and Strbac is now at the other end of that spectrum, in the position those senior athletes once were.
During her years at McMaster, she grew as an athlete and person. She changed positions and built connections with her teammates along the way.
After growing up in Oakville playing club and high school volleyball at a high level, Strbac committed to the Marauders. Her first university volleyball game she attended was at McMaster’s Burridge Gym.
“I was immediately drawn to the intensity and passion that the girls played with,” she told the McMaster website in 2019. “Since then, it has been a hope of mine to play in such a high quality program like the one at Mac.”
She won an Ontario championship and a silver medal at the Volleyball Championship national championships with the Halton Hurricanes. Her strong performances as a setter with Garth Webb Secondary school earned her a spot at the Halton High-School All-Star game.
While she had played club volleyball since she was 14, the nature of it meant she didn’t spend as much time with her teammates then and wasn’t as close with them. That’s what she expected going into McMaster.
When Strbac finally made the transition to university, her bond with her McMaster teammates became crucial. “University is a time when everyone’s really finding themselves out,” she noted. “So the fact that we go through that really important time together is what makes it so strong.”
With the Hurricanes, Strbac mainly played the middle position. However, after arriving at McMaster, she talked with head coach Tim Louks, who wasn’t sure she had the height to be a middle in the OUA. So she switched to playing outside hitter, another change in a year full of them.
She was in a new environment, meeting new teammates, playing a new position at a new level. She was outside her comfort zone.
Strbac noted that her mental game “wasn’t great” in her rookie season as she didn’t play much. She played seven sets in five games. When she did get in, she was “so nervous and so stressed.”
That’s where those connections she formed her with teammates helped. She formed trust with them. “Even if I make errors on the board, we’re all going to pull it together,” she said. “There’s no blaming. It’s always support.”
When she does face adversity and errors, Strbac reminds herself of two things: why she’s playing volleyball and why she loves it. In certain moments, she’ll look around and make eye contact with her teammates. “Then remember, this is so much fun,” she said. “It really can pull you out of getting in your head.”
Strbac also reminds herself of her opportunity she has: playing university volleyball – the sport she loves – with her friends. She’s grateful for it.
“Through that whole experience, I feel like my mental game has gotten a lot better,” she added.
Her skills and production have gotten better as well. Her second season in 2020-21 was cancelled due to COVID. By then, she switched back to middle.
In her third year in 2021-22, she set a career-high in games played, kills, attacks and service aces. She finished with 38 total blocks, good for third in the OUA. She showed her versatility that she had from back in her high school and club days.
In her fourth and final year, she’s carried over her strong play. Against Nipissing on Nov. 26, Strbac set career-highs in kills (9), points (12.5) and tied her career-high in assists (two) and service aces (two).
She talks about building up her connection with libero Christina Stratford – who she came into McMaster with in 2019 – with their transition to attacking. She talks about consistently working on her serving, defending and setting.
“Ana, I think, is now playing as good volleyball as she’ll play,” Louks noted. “She’ll graduate this year. That’s fantastic stuff.”
As Strbac reflects, she thinks of all the moments she’s spent with her teammates. She thinks of how they’ve been there supporting her in all the aspects of her McMaster experience – schooling, volleyball, mental health and everything else.
“Definitely, the connections are what I’m going to miss the most,” Strbac said. “I’m honestly afraid that when I leave, I’m not going to find that with others because it’s really special.”
Strbac still has 12 more regular season games ahead of her. Possibly playoff games as well. She’ll have her graduation ceremony. She’ll have her own final season ending banquet as well – coming full circle from 2019.
“I try not to think about it because every time I think about leaving, I’ve been sad and I’m so sad to leave the team,” Strbac noted. “But I know I’m going to come back and visit a lot.”
Perhaps in the future, she’ll be back cheering on her teammates and the Marauders at the Burridge Gym. Perhaps, she and her teammates will be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings.
Featured Image: Strbac (number four) gathers with teammates (Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics)