Hamilton, ON- Wojciech Kraj had played the Long Beach State Beach before. The third-year middle on the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team played the reigning NCAA finalists back in December 2019 – a 3-2 loss at Toronto’s Pan Am Sports Centre. The defending OUA champion Marauders have played the Beach before in the clash of men’s volleyball powerhouses but not since then.
“I want to beat every team but if you get one chance to play against these teams, it’s extra motivation,” Kraj noted.
This time, Marauders would have two chances against them. This time, the games would be at home, in front of a loud crowd at the Burridge Gymnasium.
However, in two five set games, the Marauders would fall just short of victory. In the first game, the teams traded sets with McMaster winning the second and fourth ones. The Beach edged out the home team 15-12 in the fifth one.
McMaster was able to stay in the game despite a hitting percentage of 0.163 (compared to Long Beach State’s 0.331).
“I’m looking at this box score here and I’m not really sure how we made it go five [sets],” Marauders head coach Dave Preston pointed out after the game. “So some smoke and mirrors there.”
Early on, the Beach’s attacking prowess was on display. The crowd saw their powerful serves and spikes. Preston praised their speed and discipline.
“It really challenged the structure of our defence,” he added. “We were adjusting some things that we don’t normally see and I thought we did a pretty good job of those in-match adjustments today.”
With OUA All-Star outside hitter Sam Cooper back in the lineup, the Marauders’ offensive rhythm grew as the game went along. This coming after not playing games for over a month.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of getting some pretty good rhythm on the corners,” Preston added.
While the Marauders had their high moments, so did Long Beach. Outside hitter Mateusz Wlodarski called the team was up and down throughout the contest.
“The moments we were up…we were really doing our thing and really rolling,” Wlodarski said. “Our downs were pretty bad tonight.”
Wlodarski mentioned that their down moments came from serving and passing. So did setter Robbie Fujisawa.
“It’s difficult for me to run the offence when we’re shanking a lot of balls and it’s super far off the net or especially the overpasses,” Fujisawa noted. “I’m not big enough to work with those.”
McMaster played without outside hitter Maxime Gratton for much of the game and outside hitter Thomas Williams. Cooper returned to the lineup after missing most of the first half of the season due to injury. He finished with a team-high 16 kills and 23 points in the first game and followed that up with 26.5 points and 22 kills in the second one.
During the rematch, the Marauders were executing early, attacking from both the left and right side. Kraj had 11 kills and Wlodarski had 10 while middle Tyler Pavelic led all Marauders with a .545 hitting percentage.
The home team won the first two sets – both tightly contested – and came oh so close to winning the next three, falling just short. The two teams would trade the lead back and forth. Four of the five sets were decided by two points. The other one was decided by four.
“Volleyball, when it’s played at that level comes down to making a couple of plays,” Preston said. The Beach made them.
Long Beach State kept on the pressure, responding to McMaster’s offence with their own. The home team went out to a 9-4 lead in the final set but Long Beach State then made a run. Still, the Marauders responded. After Fujisawa set up Cooper for a kill to make it match point at 14-13, the crowd could sense the victory.
The visitors then closed out the game with three straight points.
Despite the defeat, there were signs of growth from the games. Kraj pointed out how they got their rhythm and started better. Preston said they improved their middle presence and serve pressure. He added that both teams played better in the second game.
“That’s really cool for me to see when we address stuff like that, how they attend to that,” he added.
Kraj and Preston both said the experience helped expose weaknesses and things to improve on. The Beach forced them to adjust to their speed and pay attention to the small details, according to Kraj.
Preston saw the difference in how his team played out of system compared to in system. When they played in structure, they played just as well as Long Beach State. Their opponents played better out of system though, according to him.
“Broken play balls, put more pressure on it and take a good swing,” he added. “Just a little bit more aggressive and I thought we played a little bit more hesitant, a little bit safer.”
Kraj said Long Beach State came out with some plays that surprised them. Meanwhile, McMaster played a more conservative approach. When the Marauders were out of system, their plays became predictable and limited.
“Long Beach just made it more unpredictable for us with the risk,” he said.
Preston said they’ll have to get more creative and apply more pressure in those situations. “We can’t just recycle and expect,” he added.
The focus on that going forward will be working on situations – in practices and games – where they are out of system and have to get back into it, according to Preston.
“Whether it’s drill design, whether it’s attention, whether it’s purpose,” he continued. “All of that staff will need to be in place. We’ll pay attention to it. I’ll guarantee we’ll be better at it.”
Featured Image: McMaster Athletics