Hamilton, ON- During her first home preseason game, Sullie Sundara felt the joy.
She described it as being in a flow state. The McMaster Marauders women’s volleyball team had just defeated over the defending U SPORTS silver medalists Trinity Western Spartans three sets to none.
The third-year outside hitter and OUA All-Star found herself with that odd feeling. She doesn’t think too much, with things coming as second nature. She found herself instead relying on her skills and staying calm.
“Things will come to you a lot quicker and your technique is always there,” she added. “But the second you overthink; you get in your head and you make little errors.”
For her, being in that state was a key to success. Against Trinity Western, she was in the flow state. She was having fun. As was her team.
You could see by how they played – the first of three games in the Thanksgiving Classic tournament they hosted from Oct. 5-7. You could see the impact the new players and the returning ones as well. You could see how much fun they were having.
Marauders head coach Nathan Janzen described them as playing loose and free. Yes, they made mistakes but they didn’t let that get to them. “I wish I could bottle that up and find it sometimes,” he said when he was asked where it came from.
The Marauders seemed to play with that looseness throughout the weekend. In the third set, they rallied after falling into a deficit. In their following two games – a five-set loss to the Brock Badgers and a five-set win over the UQAM Citadins – they rallied and won crucial points as well. This was coming off winning the Ottawa Gee-Gees preseason classic tournament the week prior.
That looseness and freedom comes from confidence and trust with each other, according to Janzen.
“Knowing that they don’t have to be the only answer for the team,” he added. “When you can rely on the people around you to do their jobs, then it’s easy to think in your mind, ‘this is doable, I can do this’.”
The season may still be in its beginning stages – the Marauders still have three more preseason games to go – but the foundation is already being built.
The coaching staff for instance. Janzen replaced long-time head coach Tim Louks after Louks took on the position of interim director, High Performance. However, Louks remains on the staff as an assistant coach.
Fourth-year libero Hayley Brookes said it’s been good having Janzen as the head coach so far. He’s been a McMaster assistant since 2010 with a brief stop as a head coach in Niagara College in between. Now he’s the interim head coach.
Brookes pointed out how Janzen has a lot of volleyball knowledge as the team’s still learning in the first month of the season. Plus, there’s the familiarity with having Louks still on staff.
Janzen mentioned how the vibes are good as they’re winning games and getting good results so far. “I feel really lucky and really blessed that I’m inheriting a team like this,” he added. “Not many first-year head coaches in the OUA get to have a team as prepared for success and driven for success as this team is.”
Speaking of that team…it’s one led by many returning veterans. Most of last year’s squad is back. They have 12 players in their third season or more of university volleyball. The Marauders lost in the OUA quarterfinals back then.
After that happened – “a reality check”, Sundara calls it – the upper year players have been good at setting a high standard, according to Sundara. They’ve guided the incoming first-years and transfers in a supportive and uplifting way.
Sundara said the team’s culture took a step up. “We’re very cohesive. On the same page. Very determined and competitive,” she said.
Sundara’s personally experienced the impact of that team culture. During the Trinity Western win, she noticed how the team never stopped supporting each other. They never stopped having fun.
That consistent team morale is something she found she could lean back on in times of duress. It helped her have fun and enjoy playing volleyball. “When I’m having fun on the court, my mistakes impact me less,” she noted. “I’m able to move on and focus on the next point.”
The Ottawa native has worked on fixing her relationship with volleyball in the past year. As a self-described anxious person, Sundara found she would get into her head a lot – taking her out of her flow state.
She’s worked more and more on staying in the moment – a continuous theme from last off-season as well. She’s worked on having what she calls a goldfish memory, putting less pressure on herself and stepping away from being perfect.
With more work and more experience in high-pressure situations, Sundara found it easier to have that mindset this preseason.
“Understanding if one game is bad or one set is bad, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “Who I am as a volleyball player does not change.”
The outside hitter found that the little things – having a pre-game routine, journaling and clearing her head – has helped a lot.
One thing that you might notice in the Thanksgiving tournament is McMaster’s depth. They rolled out almost two different lineups in their first two games. Only middle Jenna Woock and outside hitter Emma McKinnon played in both.
Janzen said the team’s depth is their biggest strength. Sundara said the depth is something she hasn’t experienced at a university or club level in her career. It helps take the pressure off the starting lineup and off her as well.
“Last year, if I had a bad game, I got into my head a lot,” she noted. “But now, if the game isn’t going my way, I know we have two, three people on the bench that are able to come in, help me out.”
Brookes said their depth will show up deeper into the season. “Everyone’s been putting their heart and soul into it and it’s only the beginning,” she added.
It speaks to something as important as the depth itself: the team culture. They’ve picked up chemistry early on after only a month-and-a-half of training together.
“The fact they’ve gelled as much as they have and pushed together speaks to how much they care about what this team does,” Janzen said.
First-year outside hitter Olivia Julien noticed that culture when she came into the program. She noticed how welcoming her teammates were. How it’s okay to make mistakes on the court – which makes her feel better. How they do a lot of team bonding and how she’s been able to talk with everyone.
The team dynamic was one of the reasons why Woock committed to McMaster. She played four years with the Toronto Varsity Blues – winning OUA West Player of the Year and other accolades – before playing professionally in Hungary last season. However, she missed the team aspect of it as being a professional felt a bit more like a job. “Here you really build a community and I missed that so I was really excited to come back,” she noted.
Her older sister Rachel played for the Marauders not too long ago and she knew the coaching staff. She heard good things about the team. That and her academic program led to her going to McMaster.
Once there, she’s worked on developing connections with all her teammates. She understands how important it is. “We have so much depth on this team and it even further creates that depth if we’re all good at working together,” she noted.
Those connections come from communication – talking with each other, knowing where everyone needs to be – as well as team bonding and building trust with each other off the court. It’ll come naturally over time, the more they play together, Woock said.
It comes in practices, where the first-years have come in and made an impact, according to Janzen. Woock and transfers Emma Dhanjal (Mercer) and Lauryn Colpitts (Queen’s) have added leadership.
“The way we practice, right now in our six-on-six is as good as we’re playing in any of these matches,” Janzen said. Given how hard and how high the level of competition is, it makes the games almost easier to play in.
Their practices have been crazy competitive, according to Julien. She sees how much talent and skill the team has, how the players are always fighting for their spot on the court.
With the start of the season, their expectations and goals are set. “Be joyful competitors,” Janzen would tell the team, according to Julien.
Julien takes that into account. She’s grateful for the playing time – making her McMaster home debut against Brock. She’s taking it all in. “I take in the crowd. I take in the pressure,” Julien said. “I thrive under pressure really well.”
As for her team, Julien sees them as “not even close to our peak yet.” She’s excited to see what they can do by the time they host nationals in March.
Nationals have been on their mind, Sundara said. It’s part of their goals they set at the start of the season. “It’s to cultivate human potential and win a national championship and I think we’re all really buying into this,” she said.
Brookes said it proves lots of motivation as they want to earn their way there. “We’re all pushing for it,” she added. “It’s going to be a long season so we’ve got to take care of our bodies but we want it badly…and we’re going to work our butts off to get there.”
For Woock, it comes back to connection. If they can all connect and work together, they’ll have a very good fighting chance at nationals. “This could be a good year for us and I’m hoping it goes the way we want to,” she added.
They’re moving in the right direction with their wins, performances and growing chemistry. With their culture, depth and experience as well. “Something is brewing,” Sundara said.
With the regular season coming up, there will be more victories, more adversity and more celebrations. More trips into the flow state. More joy as well.
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics