Hamilton, ON- Aidan Palanca couldn’t help but smile. The second-year libero had worked hard all week in practice and here was his chance. He soaked it all in until the very end.
Palanca hasn’t played in many games but played more than ever in the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team’s three set victory over the Waterloo Warriors on Nov. 10.
He alternated with libero Ben Kerkhoff, playing in two of the three sets. All while enjoying the moment. “I don’t think a smile left my face the whole game,” he recalled.
Palanca wasn’t alone. The Marauders dug deep into their bench against Waterloo with several players – including some rookies – seeing action. McMaster head coach Brad Douwes said they wanted to get some players opportunities.
He knows that game action is different than practice. “When you put on the jersey and the adrenaline’s flying and there’s people watching you, that’s a big difference from practice,” Douwes said.
How did the players feel? Palanca felt the nerves but soon moved past it. “I felt like I eased into it,” he said. “Even if I did make a mistake, I knew my teammates had my back so I just bounced back.”
His preparation helped. Throughout practice, he shows up and puts in the work, according to Douwes. He does so with a smile on his face. He earned his opportunity. “He was ready tonight,” the head coach noted.
When Palanca got the nod to play, he felt thankful. Before the game, he looked at his teammates and told them: “Let’s do it together.”
He focused on the little details – like high ball setting and staying calm on defence. As he came into the game and made plays, he noticed how excited his teammates got. It’s a feeling he can relate to, as someone who cheers them on with the same energy.
Having a year of experience also helps. Palanca knows the facility, the practices and drills better than he did a year ago. He focused on executing in practice.
He also focused on being more vocal. As a first-year, he was more shy, not talking as much. “I feel like I’m way more vocal now and comfortable with the guys and I got used to the speed of the game,” he added.
Palanca thinks about being vocal. He knows that his job as a libero: to command the back row. He knows he has to be vocal when they’re losing as well as when they’re winning.
Those vocal cords can be heard when he cheers for his teammates. When he tells them: “What’s going to happen in the next point.”
“When I’m vocal, I’m engaged in the game and it just makes everything else easier,” Palanca said. “I don’t have to focus more on my actions. I just focus on my talk and my actions come.”
One of those teammates Palanca cheered on was first-year setter Jason Heidbuurt. The Hamilton native made his regular season debut against the Warriors, finishing with seven assists in one set.
When he was told he would go in, he was stoked. I’ve got to get ready and into the mindset, he thought to himself. I’ve got to be a leader.
It was fun but nervous as he got more comfortable as the game went along. He set up his teammates for points – including his fellow first-years. There was a moment when he connected with first-year middle Jared Kuiken for a kill. “A sweet connection,” he calls it. “Just first-year to first-year, it feels great.”
Him and Kuiken are roommates as well. They’ve built a connection from talking a lot and spending a lot of time together. “We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We’ll all trying to get through first year figuring it out.”
Just a year ago, Heidbuurt was up in the stands of the Burridge Gym, watching many of his current teammates as they won an OUA championship and national bronze medal. He didn’t know it at the time, being a late recruit. He’s connected with them since then.
“It’s definitely a little bit intimidating, first time walking in the gym with all the guys you look up to but it’s been a great experience so far,” he said.
The setter mentions how he’s got to know their personalities and how they play. He’s become friends with them, which has been super fun.
Now, he’s a McMaster Marauder just like them.
Both Palanca and Heidbuurt have learned from their teammates, especially those in the same position.
Palanca knows how jittery he can be as a defender – always wanting to follow where the ball is. Fellow liberos Kerkhoff and Matthew Rugosi taught him to stay calm. To take care of the back row.
When it’s just the three of them at practice, they push each other and support each other. They cheered Palanca on when he played versus Waterloo. “When I get my chance, they’ve been really happy for me,” he said. “And I felt really good.”
One of the players Heidbuurt watch run McMaster’s offence last season was setter Robbie Fujisawa. Even as his teammate, he noticed Fujisawa’s leadership on and off the floor as a team captain. He noticed how he never gets too emotional. He notices how he follows the game plan, has good set selection and sets it to good spots.
He also notices Fujisawa’s constant confidence in him. He always tells Heidbuurt he’s doing well – even when he’s not. “He just keeps me confident in my abilities,” he said. “He knows what I can do and he pushes me towards that.”
As the Waterloo game drew to closer to match point, it sunk in for Palanca. He took a glance at the crowd. This is actually happening, he thought. “It felt really good,” he said.
Palanca knows he’ll continue to work. He knows he’ll earn other opportunities and make the most out of it. He’ll also remember this game and how he played. How he’ll keep moving forward.
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics