By Kaitlin Jingco, U SPORTS Men's Volleyball Correspondent
It was December 30, and the McMaster campus was cold, dark and as dead as one would expect for a Friday night in the middle of the holiday break. Contrary to the rest of campus, however, the Burridge Gym was jam-packed, with a lineup outside the door of people itching to get in to witness Marauder history.
The eager crowd of over 2,250 people were at the closed campus to see the McMaster men's volleyball team face the reigning NCAA champions, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
While some would shake at the idea of having to face the number one university volleyball team in the United States, years ago when McMaster head coach, Dave Preston, met the Buckeyes' head coach, he proposed these friendly matches for the learning opportunity they present.
"(Ohio State's) got two national championships in the last five years," says Preston. "They're extremely talented and they're extremely well coached. Anytime you're playing a team like that, it's a bonus."
Preston may praise the Buckeyes' track record, but it's not like his team has an empty trophy case. On a provincial level, the Marauders have won the last four straight OUA championships. On a national scale, they finished second in U SPORTS last year and third in both 2014 and 2015.
What also took place in 2014 was the initiation of the McMaster-Ohio State rivalry. Their first exhibition game took place in October of that year in Ohio, a showing that saw the Marauders lose two games, two nights in a row. In 2015, the Marauders headed down to Ohio again, this time winning two exhibition games on back-to-back nights by 3-2 and 3-1 scores.
But this past December for the tiebreaker, it was the Marauders who had the home court advantage. And in front of a packed audience, McMaster swept the NCAA champs three sets to none.
"When we won that last point," says Andrew Richards, a third-year Marauders setter, "you get to look up and see not only your family but everyone in the stands; it was full. It was just such a cool experience. I'm going to be 90 years old talking to my grandkids one day, telling them about the time when we played Ohio State in our home gym."
While reflecting on that amazing December night, Richards is quick to credit the hard work of his coaches and the long list of support staff for giving the squad the tools needed to beat the American champions. Further, the communications major credits the McMaster marketing team for capitalizing on the friendly rivalry to fill the gym, creating an atmosphere that gave him "butterflies."
Preston explains that while the win and the environment were "what (student-athletes) dream of," on a more practical level, the game shed light on the things that his team needs to work on in order to be successful in the regular season.
"Anything that we weren't doing really well, Ohio State exposed it really quickly," says Preston. "The match was extremely beneficial."
In the years to come, he hopes to continue facing the Buckeyes whenever it's feasible.
"As often as our schedule will allow, we're gonna try and continue to do that," he says. "There are so many good things to come from it."
While Richards agrees with his coach that these Ohio State games are advantageous in the midst of the U SPORTS regular season, the 20-year-old can't help but look at these matches as an example of something even bigger.
"The first day we came back from Christmas break and we saw the U.S. flag hanging (in the gym) … because Ohio was coming to play, that was a really cool thing for a lot of people," says Richards. "Any opportunity you have to not only represent your school but represent a flag, it's pretty special."
The setter explains that there are a lot of opinions regarding Canadian and American sports, most of which lean towards the United States as the better breeder of quality athletics.
But with the Marauders' demonstration against the Buckeyes as a small example, Richards thinks that, at least in the sport of men's volleyball, Canadians deserve a lot more credit.
"(These games) will make people look a bit deeper to see how strong Canadian volleyball is," he says. "We love to play in our U SPORTS league, and (these matches bring) a good feeling because it shows that what we have going on here in Canada is something special."
"In the sport of men's volleyball," agrees Preston, "the top teams in Canada can play with the top teams in the U.S. … We can compete with the best of the best."