Hamilton, ON- The crowd rose to their feet as the coach finished his speech. It was a short one but marked a significant moment.
It was the evening of Feb. 3 at the Burridge Gym as the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team were about to face the RMC Paladins in the first game of a back-to-back. Long-time Marauders head coach Dave Preston was honoured with a pre-game ceremony. He announced his retirement for the end of the season just weeks earlier.
A video tribute played on the big screen, with various coaches and others talking about his impact. Preston then took the microphone in his hand. He joked about how Tom Brady had taught him you can only have one retirement speech so he kept this one short.
“Thank you very much to the fans, to my family, to my colleagues and to everybody in Marauder nation,” he told the crowd. “Thank you so much. I love you all.”
The crowd, the players, fellow coaches and his family erupted in applause.
Preston’s impact on McMaster and volleyball in Canada during his 22 years cannot be overstated. He played for the Western Mustangs before winning six OUA West Division titles as their head coach. He took over the Marauders position in 2002-03, winning just six games his first year and seven games his second. Then, the team continued to climb into the powerhouse it is today.
In his time, the Marauders have won 10 OUA titles and made 14 trips to nationals. They’ve gone toe-to-toe – and often beaten – the top NCAA teams as well.
The Chatham native had won the national coach of the year award three times and the OUA coach of the year award seven times. He’s also worked with, developed and formed relationships with numerous OUA All-Stars, award winners and other players over time.
As he watched the video tribute and soaked in the applause, he thought about those connections he had with everyone.
“Decisions like this forces you to reflect and connect,” he said. “I look back at those pictures and see those people and how much they meant to me and reflect on that. Thankfully, I’m still connected to almost everyone in that video.”
While he said the time would come for him to give a big speech and get all gushy and emotional, this wasn’t it. “But I’ll tell you what,” he added. “That video sure pushed that limit for me.”
When asked about the decision to retire, Preston said it was time to do so. “When you get old, you have to retire. That’s how it works,” he said. “I’m old now. I’ve spent 30 years coaching collegiate volleyball…that’s 30 years of grinding. It’s time to turn the page.”
The head coach had agreed to become the new head coach of the Australian men’s national team before the season began. Perhaps that had something to do with it?
“Zero,” Preston noted. “Those decisions are separate completely. I don’t know what’s in front of me. I know that there’s some opportunities for sure but my focus is on our McMaster guys and finishing this year and I think getting those two things intertwined would be not fair to either. I’ve got to finish this job.”
Speaking of the task at hand, the Marauders are currently 16-0 – winning both games against RMC. They have their sights on another OUA title and a national title – which would take place at the Burridge Gym since they are hosting.
The following evening was seniors night as the Marauders honoured their three graduating players – outside hitter Mateusz Wlodarski, middle Wojciech Kraj and setter Jason Wildeboer. As the players celebrated their seniors night, they also reflected upon the impact Preston’s had on them.
Kraj came from Poland, initially on a two-week trip where he got a taste of being in Canada and he met the team and the coaching staff. It made it a simple decision for him to commit to McMaster.
As he got to know Preston, it changed his mentality – changing him from a boy to man, according to him. Kraj learned about how to approach the sport like a professional.
That meant taking care of even the smallest details – from post-game cool downs to his diet – to prepare for every single game.
Wildeboer came over to McMaster after playing four seasons with the Redeemer Royals. Despite only spending one year with the Marauders, he said Preston’s made a more dramatic positive impact on his career than he thought. He learned from Preston’s vast volleyball knowledge.
“The mentality of learning how to play at the next level is every little thing matters,” Wildeboer said. “The details are what makes you great.”
Back on the court, the Marauders were executing those details. As they took the lead against the Paladins, they went deeper into their bench. First-year middle Jack Mackley came in and recorded a kill. Their teammates rose up and cheered.
Second-year middle Haben Yohannes came off the bench in the first game and played all three sets in the second game, notching two kills, two blocks and five digs.
Yohannes said he’s grateful for the opportunity and said the playing experience builds his confidence. It’s part of what he calls “an attitude of gratitude”, which Preston has helped instill. “I didn’t feel like I played amazing but I was grateful for the opportunity Dave gave me and that’s really shifted my perspective,” he noted.
Before coming to McMaster, the Toronto native had heard a lot about Preston and the Marauders program. He put them up there with other prestigious American schools.
Then he finally met the man himself. He thought he’d be taller than he actually was. Even when he first met with Preston as a high school recruit at a tournament, he found him to be extremely personable. Someone who cared about him and wanted to get to know him.
That reflected in those early conversations. “He didn’t push McMaster,” Yohannes noted. “He pushed what was best for me.”
He laid out the options for Yohannes and told him: “If this place is best for you, if this is what you want, go to this school. But if this is what you want, come to us.”
That stuck with Yohannes. “I’m a recruit. I’m an 18-year-old. He doesn’t know me at all. He’s only known me for a couple of months and he genuinely cares about what’s best for me,” he added. “I think that speaks a lot to his character.”
The graduating player who’s been around McMaster the longest can think of moment in particular that embodies Preston.
Wlodarski remembers not playing a lot in his first two seasons at McMaster. In his third season, in one of their games against those powerhouse NCAA teams, he finally got some playing time. It didn’t go well, according to him.
After the game, Preston pulled him aside and ripped into him for what felt like forever. Looking back upon it, Wlodarski called it a turning point for him.
“I could feel the desire in his tone and his messaging,” he recalled. “He wanted me to succeed and it was so genuine and I really appreciated that from him.”
Following that day, everything changed for him. How he approached things day to day. His mindset in dealing with adversity. He learned how to take things one day at a time to be a better volleyball player.
Yohannes called Wlodarski the definition of a successs story. He points to his relentless work ethic. “He has his life planned out and he continues to work,” he said.
From watching Polish league matches on Saturday mornings, Wlodarski’s passion for volleyball started early. He became a student of it. “The more you watch the game, the better you become at it without even practising,” he said.
Through his hard work, Wlodarski has grown and thrived as a player and person. He was an OUA All-Star in 2021-22. He played for Canada’s Men’s Beach Volleyball team. As a Biomedical Sciences masters student, he’s working on an app for future infectious diseases, according to Preston.
“To say how great of a volleyball player he is, doesn’t do justice to the calibre of human being he is,” Preston noted.
Preston and Wlodarski have been together at McMaster for the past six years. “I don’t know what it’d be like without him because he’s been a staple here as long as I can remember,” the head coach said. Now, they will finish their McMaster careers together.
Two of the hardest things for Preston as a coach are cutting players from tryouts and seeing players graduate.
The silver lining for the graduating players is seeing them mature over the years and seeing where they’re going in the future. It’s been the case for the graduating seniors from the past and for the three graduating players this year.
“Although it’s in a different arena, those three guys are going to be successful no matter what they do,” he said.
For him and his impending departure at the end of the season, there’s perhaps another silver lining. Given the definitive nature of the coach-athlete relationship, he and players can be friendly but not friends, according to Preston. That changes once they leave. In this case, perhaps once he leaves as well.
On that Friday night at Burridge, as he saw previous graduates and alumni in the stands, he saw them as friends. “I’ll leave the position but I’ll get to take those relationships with me,” he said.
Featured Image: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics
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