Hamilton, ON- Everything came full circle for Christina Stratford. The fifth-year Burlington native came into McMaster as a libero. As the years went on through, her role changed. She became a setter but also became so much more than that.
On Nov. 10 against the Waterloo Warriors, she went back to playing libero – filling in for teammate Hayley Brookes. The Marauders won in three sets. Stratford finished with a game-high 14 digs as well as two assists.
“It’s a cool role to step into and one that I like,” Stratford said. “I enjoy being the leader of the back row.”
Yet, the change in position is just one of many things she takes on. Go deeper and you’ll realize it’s also not solely about what she does but her impact on others.
When the Marauders score a point during a game – like they did countless times against the Warriors – you’ll often see her. She’s hard to miss. Stratford will celebrate her teammates’ points with passion, pumping her arms and screaming from her lungs.
Once when first-year outside hitter Olivia Julien hits a ball through the opposing blockers, Stratford goes crazy. That’s what McMaster head coach Nathan Janzen noticed.
“She’s an energy giver,” Janzen said. “And our team feeds off of that.”
Janzen knew Stratford her whole university career. He knew how great of a teammate and volleyball player she is. He knew how important her energy was, especially given her position. As a libero, you’re not the star, you’re never scoring the point. “At no point is it really about you,” he noted. “You’re always playing for others.”
Stratford’s Marauder journey started with uncertainty. She was recruited as a serving sub. Coming into McMaster in 2019, she was told she might never play.
Her response? I’m going to find a way, Janzen recalled. She was determined to find a way to contribute, to work as hard as she could, to be an amazing teammate.
After all that hard work and grit, Stratford found herself as a setter – which she had also played in high school – but not just any setter. “Suddenly, Christina was the best one we had,” Janzen said.
Suddenly, she was a key member of a contending OUA team. Suddenly, she found herself winning the OUA’s Award of Merit. Suddenly, there she was in Vancouver this past March, accepting the Thérèse Quigley Award – for her involvement in volleyball, academics and community involvement.
For Stratford, it was all part of a life embedded in the sport. She picked up volleyball from a young age. Both her parents coached. She’s been around different coaches and picked things up from them.
Her volleyball knowledge and IQ resonates with those around her. Long-time teammate Ellie Hatashita said she’s never met anyone who knows so much about everything going on. When she comes to Stratford with a question, she knows she’ll get an answer.
From the little parts of their game plan to pieces of film to factoids about every player and team in their conference. “So awesome to have someone like that,” Hatashita said.
When it came to switching from setter to libero, Stratford sees the similarities in the roles. One is the leader of the offence while the other is the leader of the defence. However, even as a libero, Stratford continues to communicate with everyone.
She’s talking to the middles, the setters and everyone in between. “She’s connecting with every player in between points,” Janzen said. She’s connecting with her head coach as well – knowing at times what Janzen’s about to say before he ever says it.
She has an active voice – and it’s not just about volleyball, according to Janzen. She sees the game in a different way than everybody else. “She sees the game in a way that sometimes I don’t see it,” the head coach added. “She asks questions before I’m even thinking about them sometimes.”
Stratford’s vision comes from her own coaching experience. Her love for coaching and teaching came early on. After all, what better way to tap into her vast ocean of volleyball knowledge for someone so immersed in the game.
Her parents were teachers as well as coaches. They taught her to take things in stride and to be okay with things not going well at times. They taught her to be adaptable.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stratford said. “For me, always having that back up plan. Always planning ahead.” Her parents stressed to her the importance of having a practice plan.
She does so as the head coach of the 18U Mountain Volleyball Everest club team. It’s the club she once played for and was an assistant coach for. It’s the club her dad Peter is the president for.
Last year, when the opportunity came up to coach with Team Ontario, Peter pushed her to do so. She did and learned from it. She’s continued to push herself and look for those opportunities as a coach – like she’s done as a player.
As a coach, she sees the game in a different light now. Yes, Stratford knows what it’s like to be on the court. However, she knows what it’s like to be off it as well.
That light shines wider than ever before. As a player, you’re focused on your role, Stratford noted. As a coach, you see everything all at once.
So, what’s it like for Stratford now given all her playing and coaching experience? Is she a player-coach? You could certainly say so.
Before the game against Waterloo, she found herself getting deeper and deeper with her game plan. As she watched the film, she noticed small tendencies from Waterloo’s servers and blocking schemes. She found herself zooming closer and closer on the little details.
Being around her McMaster coaches has helped as well. Janzen and the coaches knew about her love for teaching. Assistant coach – and former long-time head coach – Tim Louks will point to things in practice and start to tell Stratford: “See this from a coaching perspective…”
She goes to their office and talks with them. She sees how assistant coach and former McMaster player Larissa Byckalo has such an extremely high IQ. She knows first-hand because Byckalo mentored her and – like her dad – pushed her to take the Team Ontario opportunity.
As a veteran player, Stratford’s helped and mentored her younger teammates as well. She helps them see things differently – just like she does.
As a coach, she knows the impact she has. When she came to McMaster, she didn’t know what her role would be, but she knew she wanted to make a mark on the community.
She’s done so with her teammates, her players and her coaches. “Super rewarding,” Stratford called it. Just like she’s grown over the years, she’s also seen the growth of those she’s coached. She sees how they’re entering the university recruiting process that she once did as a club player.
“It’s super cool to have that capability as a coach but also still be a mentor and a relationship for them,” Stratford said. “Whether they need it in terms of their personal or volleyball career.”
Imagine how busy it can be for her to juggle all those different positions – on the court and off. From not just her different positions as a volleyball player but being a head coach, a student, the president of the McMaster Varsity Leadership Committee and more.
Yet, somehow, Stratford balances it. “She does so much,” Hatashita said. “I don’t even know how she has time in her day.” Yet, when it comes to watching film, helping teammates and coaching, she’ll be able to focus in on the minutia. On the smallest of details. She’ll bring her trademark energy as well.
This season, on the court, with the team’s depth, she’s back to her original position. “The position that she actually should play,” Janzen said. That means being a serving and passing sub as well as being a libero. That means contributing with her defence.
What is her future as a coach? When Janzen envisions it, he sees how she’s going to be a phenomenal one. At the heart of it all, he knows how great she is at teaching. “She’s a player but she’s an educator too,” he said.
So, of course, the woman with teaching and volleyball in her blood would soon be doing so again – like really soon. Immediately after the Marauders defeated the York Lions three sets to two in Toronto on the evening of Nov. 11, Stratford and teammates Abby Delamere and Christine Hachokake – also assistant coaches on the Everest team – hit the road for Ottawa.
They were on their way to coach a tournament.
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics