Injured roster proves resilient
The story is formulaic enough at this point to warrant a movie franchise. Whenever they happen to meet, the Marauders and the Gaels inexorably play to a fifth set. And once that final frame is done and dusted, it is McMaster that comes out on top.
That pattern has held for the past few seasons, and it gained yet another piece of corroborating evidence on Jan. 14. Over the course of five grueling sets on that Saturday night at the Burridge Gym, the Marauders added a ninth win to their season tally at the Gaels’ expense.
The victory against their longtime nemesis improved McMaster’s record to 9-2, and confirms another sweep of the season series in the favour of the Maroon and Grey. With the conference leaders from Western suffering their first loss at the hands of the Waterloo Warriors, the Marauders now edge two points closer to the OUA pace setters.
After the weekend win, outside hitter Jori Mantha reaffirmed that he and his teammates have come to expect a battle against the Gaels. Their collective experience in matches against the tricolour squad breeds a measure of comfort every time they face up to the task of playing Queen’s.
“It’s been five straight [wins] since I got here,” said Mantha of the head-to-head matchup. “It’s always been my favourite match to play against that team, especially because I have friends there. In terms of how we play them, it always turns out to be a very interesting game and a good fight.
“It almost seems that we know now that we’ll need to find a way through, to figure out the problems we have and get the win.”
Getting the win has been the constant for McMaster in the team’s recent meetings with Queen’s, and yet the vast majority of those results have gone down to the wire. Fans of both teams recognize at this stage that the fixture is guaranteed to be an exciting one, and an emotional one for players and partisan onlookers alike.
For his part, Mantha indicates that the Marauders themselves are keenly aware of the entertainment value that their tilts with the Gaels entail. Despite the excitement involved, the sophomore believes that it is his team’s ability to stay on track that has led them to continued success in the matchup.
“We joke around about that on the bench, the idea that we always give the crowd a good show,” said Mantha. “The truth of the matter is that we have a game plan and we stick to it. That’s really what it comes down to, that we’re able to push through it even when we’re down.
“We know that we’ve been able to come back in the past, so that really helps mentally and helps us do the same thing again because we’ve been there before.”
McMaster appears to dig in readily against their rivals, particularly when they have their collective backs against the wall as they did in the fourth set of Saturday’s contest.
Trailing two sets to one and by as many as four points in the dying stages of the fourth frame, the Marauders found an extra gear to power through to the fifth. From there, momentum carried the home side to another titanic win in this hotly contested matchup.
Mantha believes that the determination that his squad exhibits in matches against the Gaels often comes from the fear of losing to the Marauders’ longtime rivals. He describes his own thought process at the time as one of resolve not to see the team’s five-game win streak slip away.
“That’s what I was saying to myself, that I couldn’t afford to lose this win-streak now, and that I would push myself and my team to get through it,” said the sophomore hitter of his fourth set mentality. “I’m pretty sure that everyone thinks that way and that they know that we can pull out games like that.”
One of the most encouraging features of their continued success on court is the Marauders’ ability to notch victories while sporting patchwork, rotating lineups. While the holiday break allowed many players crucial rehabilitation time, it also proved costly on the personnel front.
During the bronze medal match that concluded McMaster’s competition at the EBWM Invitational Tournament in Saskatoon, starting setter T.J. Sanders suffered a concussion, keeping him out of the lineup for this past weekend’s matches.
While no official timeline has been set for his return to action, Sanders has indicated that he is not experiencing any substantial symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, and should be back in action shortly.
In his absence on Jan. 14, McMaster turned over the control of its offence to the creative duo of Austin Campion-Smith and Chris Spack, both of whom filled the setting void admirably in the five-set triumph.
Mantha was effusive in his praise for Spack in particular, who had only a week of practice at the setting position under his belt before the Saturday tilt against the Gaels.
“It helps that we have such depth to our team that everyone can perform,” said Mantha. “It really helps us when someone can come in like Chris, who’d only been practicing at setter for a week after TJ’s concussion. To have him come in and have him perform so well is great.
“Everyone was really well physically and mentally prepared.”
That same level of preparation will be necessary this coming weekend, as the Marauders face a challenging weekend doubleheader against the Waterloo Warriors and Guelph Gryphons.
Waterloo in particular should pose an intriguing test, fresh as they are off of upset victories over the Western Mustangs and Windsor Lancers. McMaster will play host to the Warriors and Gryphons on Jan. 20 and 21 respectively, with both games slated to begin at 8 p.m.