Hamilton, ON- Before the Trinity Western Spartans’ national semi-finals against the McMaster Marauders, senior Jesse Elser shared a story.
It was 2018, the same scenario his team was facing now: McMaster vs Trinity Western in the men’s volleyball semi-finals at McMaster. Elser remembers his team trailing in the first set. As a first-year back then, remembers the encompassing and scary environment.
The Spartans would win that game. From that experience came a valuable lesson. A lesson Elser was now sharing with his teammates.
He told his teammates about the range of emotions they would feel. He told his teammates: We have to stick with it. We have to trust each other. “I told everyone in the room: trust each other and you got to trust yourself as much as the person next to you trust you,” he recalled.
Their trust was tested five years later. It was again a raucous atmosphere in a packed Burridge Gym. The Spartans found themselves trailing again after dropping the first set 27-25. Elser knew the first set would be crazy.
Keep going, keep going, he told his teammates. The blocks are going to come, the blocks are going to come, he kept telling them.
They did. The Spartans persevered, rallying to the win the next three sets to reach the championship final.
As head coach Adam Schriemer watched the game unfold, he saw their response. Like Elser, he was part of that 2018 semi-finals against McMaster as a senior about to embark on a professional career.
Now, as a first-year interim coach, he credited Elser’s talk to the team. He saw his team’s keep going mentality in the serving and high ball phase. They stay aggressive with their serving and finished with 12 aces to McMaster’s six.
As senior Brodie Hofer was on the court, he noticed how McMaster was hitting “awesome” shots early on while Trinity Western was getting block touches on all of them or they were going through their hands.
“As the match goes on, you’re going to lose some of your spike touch. You’re going to get lower,” he added. “That’s what I kept saying: stick with it. The blocks will come.”
They did come as Trinity Western closed out the victory and the close sets. For the Spartans, it’s another championship finals – their seventh in a row. In many ways, they are the gold standard in U SPORTS men’s volleyball.
Elser knows. He said the championship is always the goal. It’s an unspoken part of their culture. “It’s not something we talk about but everything we do is designed to get back to this game,” Schriemer said.
Part of that culture comes back to trust. It’s reiterated before these big games. Schriemer talked about trusting their work throughout the year. Hofer talked about how their trust and relationship building would carry them through the tournament. Elser reminded his teammates to have confidence in their abilities.
“We rely on a foundation,” he added. “Our foundation isn’t just volleyball…it’s relationships, problem solving, stuff like that.”
The team will ride that foundation into the finals against the Sherbrooke Vert et Or – who knocked off the top seed Alberta Golden Bears. The two seniors have both won and lost the title game. They won against Brandon in 2019. They lost to UBC in 2018 and to Alberta in 2022.
For Hofer, this season served as reminder of how hard it is to reach this point. “It’s a huge relief to have the opportunity to play in this final,” he said.
As the game ended against McMaster, Elser hugged his girlfriend. He thought about all the work he’s put in throughout the season – all the games, meetings, workouts. “Finally, there was something to come out of that,” he noted.
They have one more game to achieve that final goal. For Elser and Hofer, it would mean another national championship to cap off their careers. It would be the team’s seventh national title and third in the past six seasons.
They know the history of the program. They know the standard. “We know that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, of all the awesome people who’ve been at this program before,” Schriemer said.
Yes, they’ve reached seven straight finals. Yes, things can be said and praise can be heaped about the program as a whole.
However, this was also about this year’s team. About Hofer, Elser and their teammates. About Schriemer and the coaching staff. About how they wrote their own chapter against McMaster. About the opportunity they have ahead of them for national glory.
“What needs to be clear is this team’s the [seventh],” Schriemer noted. “This is the team that got to the [seventh] there. And that’s what’s most important because these guys got to the national championship game.”
McMaster Loses with Super Slim Margins in Proud Effort
From the McMaster point of view, the game means the end of their championship run. It was all set for the storybook ending – the final send off on head coach Dave Preston’s illustrious career.
When they won the first set, it was super exciting, according to outside hitter Sam Cooper. When they lost the next three, the margins were super slim. Cooper said those margins came from really fine details.
“That was one of our best games and certainly one of the most fun games I’ve been a part of,” Cooper noted. “Unhappy with the result but not unhappy with the way that we performed and the way that we pushed.”
He noticed Trinity Western’s serving pressure and pressure all around – “they’re coming at you at all times,” he pointed out. Cooper added it was a level of service pressure they’re weren’t used to. He said they weathered the storm pretty well but the Spartans “gave us too much to handle.”
Cooper finished with a team-high 16.5 points and 12 kills. Fellow outside hitter Maxime Gratton came into when they were trailing in the second set. He made an immediate impact – on offence and defence. “I think he was huge for us,” Cooper noted. “His reception was really necessarily at that point.”
While the semi-final loss isn’t the result they wanted, Cooper said he’s still proud of their effort. The Marauders now have a bronze medal match against the Canada West Champion Golden Bears. It’s a chance to finish the year with a medal.
“There’s still an opportunity to play another really fun game,” Cooper said. “Which is, I think, the reason that we’re all here…just because it’s not in the final doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a good time.”
Featured Image: Trinity Western Spartans Athletics