The Hamilton Spectator
Mac sends coach out a winner
Marauders knock off defending champs to claim bronze in Dave Preston’s final game
Dave Preston walked out of McMaster’s gym for the last time with a national volleyball medal around his neck.
The fact that it was bronze isn’t quite as poetic as saying the man who’s about to take over as coach of Australia’s national team is heading to the Gold Coast with a gold medal. That opportunity disappeared in Saturday’s national semifinal when his Marauders lost to Trinity Western (which destroyed Sherbrooke in straight sets in the final, making it 26 years out of the last 27 a team from the west has won).
But for a head coach who’s spent 22 years building a powerhouse program, it was appropriate that he was rewarded in a tangible way. And that his side beat the defending champions from Alberta in straight sets on Sunday (25-21, 25-23, 2523) to do it.
“Leaving with hardware is a really good feeling,” Preston said after the match, clutching the medal. “Clearly I think people had a different colour in mind but we’ll take it.”
It was an emotional evening for the 55-year-old.
Not only did he have to spend much of the day rallying his team after Saturday’s bitter disappointment. He also had to wrestle with all the reminders that this was the end.
Much of the third set, in particular, was rough. He says he was choking back tears a few times.
And when the final point hit the floor and his players rushed the floor to celebrate, he just sat on his chair alone.
“I wanted to soak that in,” he says. “I wanted to remember that.”
As Mac was slugging it out in this game and all through the weekend with the best teams in the country, it was impossible not to wonder if everyone in the gym should’ve felt the same way.
This program has been the king of its sport for a long time in Ontario. On campus, it’s been the gold standard. As other Mac teams have waxed and waned, men’s volleyball has been a constant. If you came to a game, you knew you were going to see a great performance and more than likely, a win. It’s a big part of the reason Burridge Gym was sold out for Mac’s games on the weekend.
All that is Preston’s legacy. Now the school has to find someone to replace him. It’s fair to assume that whoever takes over for him will be a good coach. But as good? The school can hope, but these are size-47 shoes to fill.
The challenge isn’t just being great at the Xs and Os or being a terrific motivator. Will the new guy be able to have the same success at recruiting without the cachet the departing boss had? In university sports, you’re only as good as the players you can entice to come to your school.
And will the new guy be able foster the same devotion Preston has? There’s a reason dozens and dozens of his former players came back to town this weekend to send him off. They — and current guys — talk about him almost reverentially as a mentor, a friend and a father figure.
When it comes to replacing this, nobody’s saying it can’t happen. Find the right guy and perhaps nothing changes. The face and voice will be new but the results will be the same.
But the history of sports offers a whole lot more examples of teams dipping after a champion coach leaves (Preston won 11 provincial titles and seven national medals — though never gold — in his run) than getting better. Or even holding its own.
So watching the Marauders on the weekend, you have to wonder if this program is at a crossroads. Will the maroon be winning Ontario titles and making regular visits to the nationals in years to come or is it about to enter a different phase?
Those who’ve become fans of this program over the years will certainly be hoping it’s not the latter. Because watching this sport played at this level is something you don’t want to see end.