The Road to 15-0
Head coach Dave Preston will be honest with you. McMaster’s undefeated record through 15 games comes as a surprise to him.
“At the start of the year, you hope it goes this way. But you don’t really know until it starts to play itself out,” said the men’s coach.
McMaster started out the gate hot. They ran over the preseason competition and the immediate success gave the young roster confidence. The Maroon and Grey opened the season with a No. 4 ranking in the country. But there wasn’t always a certainty of how the 2012-13 campaign would go. Despite currently holding an undefeated record, there was once a point where the season could be called unpredictable.
“Knowing we were going to have 10 freshman in this year, our season could have taken a variety of different looks,” explains Preston. “Now, I knew from the get-go when we signed the recruiting class that we had in the spring, we were going to be okay in the fall. What okay meant, we weren’t really sure.”
The definition of “okay” for a coach whose career record at McMaster is 160-68 is probably not the same definition for most coaches. Preston expects the best from his team – it’s part of the culture that he’s instilled since his tenure began in 2002. But in the spring of 2012, it was hard to know what that best would look like.
It wasn’t until the summer when he worked with standout freshmen Dany Demyanenko and Stephen Maar that Preston had a clearer view of what his team was capable of.
“Having the opportunity to coach two of the incoming freshmen on the [Canadian] Junior National Team gave me some insight into what I was now working with on a daily basis,” said the Maroon bench boss.
While the recruiting class was one of the best hauls in the country, it’s not the sole reason for the Marauders’ winning streak. Instilling a foundation of what the team is expected of – from both an on- and off-court perspective – was imperative. But with an overflow of new talent coming on board, laying the foundation was not a simple task.
“When you’ve got 10 freshman, they override the number of seniors in your program. The amount of teaching that needed to be done, even if it was one-on-one, seniors to freshman, there would still be guys left over. Guys who wouldn’t have a mentor,” said Preston.
But the rookies took to the lessons quickly, and the Maroon men flew through the early competition. From the first exhibition game, Preston was confident in his players and showed no reluctance to inject up a dozen different players into a game.
By design, Preston uses his long bench to keep guys fresh and ready to go. This extreme preparation paid off when Jayson McCarthy suffered an injury and his teammates were able to step in and fill the void, allowing for Mac to go through what the coach calls “a few bumps.” Despite the injury, the Marauders righted the ship and were able to pull out the victories.
A major factor in focussing the team despite the unfortunate events has been the presence of Austin Campion-Smith, Dan Groenveld, and Kevin Stevens.
Campion-Smith has been one of the most consistent performers for the McMaster squad, and his steadiness has been especially important given his position.
“His development probably doesn’t get recognized by the common fan. Most of [the development] is around decision-making and who to set when – and more importantly – why,” said Preston of his setter’s growth.
Equally important to the team is the role of Groenveld and Stevens, who have split time at libero. The 11-year coach gave credit to the pair for their ability to adapt to the new position in order to help the team.
It can’t be easy to split time with someone, though. Athletes at the university level have a high competitive drive and sharing floor time with anyone can be tough to manage. When you have one of the best recruiting classes in the country, this issue is bound to arise on multiple occasions.
McMaster combats this through a philosophy Preston calls “positive rivalry.” What it boils down to is accountability: if your teammate is good that day, you have to be good that day. The coaching staff shies away from letting players evaluating each others’ performances to validate playing time. So far, the philosophy is working seamlessly.
Preston remains optimistic about the rest of the season, just as he was at the start of the season. He’s not looking too far into the future; he’s focussing on the short-term goals.
“We want to make sure we secure first place and homecourt advantage through the [OUA] Final Four. The only way to 100 per cent do that is with an 18-0 season,” said Preston.
But given the success of the program this year, a CIS tournament berth is more than a possibility right now. A Final Four victory would send the team to the championship tournament in Laval.
“At the CIS Championships, if we’re fortunate enough to make it, we’re not going to bother going in it if we don’t think we can win it. We’re going there to win it.”
McMaster’s season has appeared to be a breeze. Undefeated record with convincing wins over their toughest opponents. Beyond the box scores, it hasn’t been that simple.
And as the head coach sits in his Maroon office, splattered with memorabilia of past champions, he couldn’t seem more proud.