Hamilton, ON- As the bronze medal match ended, the realization came for Dave Preston.
He was standing on the sidelines of the Burridge Gym, coaching the team he’d coached since 2002– the McMaster men’s volleyball team. He had been at nationals before but this time was different.
It was his last-ever game as McMaster’s head coach. The team secured a three-set victory over the Alberta Golden Bears to capture bronze. As the players ran onto the court to celebrate, Preston stood and soaked in the moment.
“I wanted to soak that one in,” he said. “I wanted to remember that one. Didn’t have a camera with me so I need to imprint that one in my mind.”
Perhaps when he pictures in his mind, he’ll think of this: Being in his home gym, in his final match, with his players, his fellow coaches and alumni watching on. With his family as well – his wife and his daughters by his side. With the emotions as well.
“I’m choking back pretty good,” he said. “Trying to keep composure because I don’t want to embarrass my children but yeah, the emotions you feel are tremendous.”
Just a day earlier, the Marauders had lost to the Trinity Western Spartans in the national semi-finals. The storybook ending – Preston and the Marauders winning their first national title at home in his final year – was over. “Everything they dreamed about vanished,” he noted.
As for him, Preston said his family helped him keep things in perspective after the loss. He said he’s thankful for their support – how they’ve become a fabric of what the team does.
Preston told his players afterwards that losing that game hurts and is supposed to hurt. “Winning means that much and when you don’t, it hurts,” he added.
Before the Alberta game, he talked to them about the principles they live by: excellence, integrity, honestly and respect. He talked about character. “That’s what it took today, just straight character,” he added. He saw both teams drain their tanks.
Preston called the bronze medal game a struggle for him. He saw players that needed some direction going into it, in such a short turnaround too. What do you say? How do you say it, he thought. He said he spent more time thinking than talking. He was so consumed about that, he didn’t even think about this being his final game.
As he watched his players celebrate winning bronze, he finally thought: “Wow, this is over.”
As Preston ends his career with one final bronze medal, for most of his players, it was their first. Outside hitter Sam Cooper knew the legacy of McMaster men’s volleyball – one Preston helped build – when he came to McMaster.
The players understand how important it was to win for Preston as well. “I can only begin to understand what it means to Dave but from what I can understand…that was a big big motivator for me,” Cooper noted.
Second-year outside hitter Brendan Mills remembers how there weren’t a lot of programs interested in recruiting him going into university as a raw, skinny high-schooler.
When Mills was 14 or 15, Preston saw something in him though. He wanted him as part of the McMaster program. Mills remembers talking with Preston is his living room. Even during his recruiting year in 2020-21 – when he didn’t have the opportunity to play due to COVID cancellations – Preston believed in him. “I’m grateful for everything,” Mills said.
Therein lies a reality from Preston’s time at McMaster. One can point to the year-over-year winning records. One can point to the OUA championships, the national medals, awards and accolades.
Yet, a fundamental part of the experience are the relationships. It’s something Preston’s built with numerous players, coaches and others over the years. He’s seen players mature and grow from their first year to their last.
He’s seen the impact they’ve had on McMaster men’s volleyball over the years. “They’re the ones who built that,” he added. “Last I checked the stat sheet…Dave Preston hasn’t scored a point in that gym.”
Perhaps this nationals was a symbolic reminder of that with all the alumni coming out to support.
The relationships are something Preston can take with him as he leaves for Australia to take over the Australian men’s national team job. He said he’ll stay in touch with his players and still connect.
In the moments after his final game, the finality of it all started to sink in though. The era had come to an end. He said the memories that day will last a lifetime. He said he’s going to miss being at McMaster a lot.
“The only way that this could have been better is with perhaps maybe a different colour of one of these [medals],” Preston noted. “But to feel that today, I’m not really sure that the colour of that would have changed.”
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics