The McMaster Marauders took aim at the stars this past year, and for a time, it seemed that the program would be forced back to earth.
Head Coach Dave Preston embarked on a recruiting drive nearly a year ago with the stated mission of chasing down the very best.
The only problem: the best rarely stay north of the 49th parallel.
“I told our players that we were going after some blue chip guys this year,” explains Preston. “I warned them what that could mean.”
The “blue chip” class in question was headlined by Danny Demyanenko and Stephen Maar, two leading members of the vaunted Toronto Crush club team that successfully toured the United States before winning yet another national club title in May.
The pair earned virtually every accolade available to a Canadian youth player, be it a club title, beach championship or selection to provincial and national teams. Their accomplishments were such that Division I schools in the NCAA – who rarely mine Canada for talent – sat up and took notice.
Recruiters flocked to the Crush, particularly after the team swept a tournament in Southern California as the only Canuck entrant and earned a berth in the U.S. National Club Championship.
The offers rolled in from premier programs south of the border, and the Marauders increasingly resigned themselves to losing out on the stars they coveted. Competitive as McMaster is among CIS schools, it is a minnow when swimming with Division I sharks.
“They’re all really good players,” says McMaster middle Alex Elliot of his team’s targets on the Crush.
“We knew that if he (Preston) was going for all of these big names, hopefully we’d maybe get one of them. When they were all interested in going to the States, we thought, “Well, there goes those guys.””
UCLA – a perennially ranked powerhouse in Division I – took a keen interest in Demyanenko, while the University of Hawaii wooed Maar. The pair was forced into a difficult decision as their Ontarian roots clashed with the glamour and competitive edge offered elsewhere.
“After a few tournaments in the States, we got a little bit of hype and there was a lot of excitement over the schools in the States. It led me and a few of my teammates to wonder whether there was something better there,” Demyanenko admits.
“The conflict was really about how competitive things would be,” says Maar. “The OUA compared to the MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) – the conference Hawaii is in – there’s a pretty big difference.
“The weekly competition – playing Waterloo as opposed to UCLA – is really different.”
Maar’s painstaking selection process came to an end in May, and to the surprise of many, he turned aside Hawaii’s overtures and declared his intent to play at McMaster.
The outside explains that his competitive fears were allayed by his Crush mentor John May – whose own son Garrett currently suits up for the Western Mustangs.
May convinced Maar that it would be his own drive and passion – not the division around him – that would dictate how far he progressed as a player.
“My coach taught me a lot,” says Maar. “He wanted us all to go to Western, but he taught me a lot about how I was only going to be as good as I made myself.
“If I choose to let myself coast, that’s the sort of player that I’ll be. But if I choose to push myself continuously – regardless of what’s around me – that’s how good I’ll be.”
Demyanenko, meanwhile, remained for all appearances Bruin-bound.
That is until he dropped the bombshell of his reversed decision on a couple of his future Marauder teammates while competing with Team Ontario at this year’s National Team Challenge Cup.
Demyanenko considered their questions about his future and then calmly delivered the surprise.
“Actually, I think I’m coming to Mac.”
The young middle explains his thought process as a simple one made all that much easier when he considered what he stood to lose in a move to the West Coast.
Determined to pursue medicine in Canada, Demyanenko risked industry connections by leaving the country. More importantly perhaps, relocating to Los Angeles would take him thousands of kilometres from a legion of friends and a mother who has largely reared him on her own.
“After a while it became kind of obvious to me which route I really wanted to take,” reflects Demyanenko. “I’ve been around Mac for a good three years now and I’ve been coming to games – even working some camps – so it’s always felt like the right route for me.”
“I thought [the move] through, but I didn’t think of what I would be missing in terms of leaving and all of the opportunities that I would have in a place like this.”
For Maar – who didn’t have the same history with the university as his Crush teammate – it was the reception he was treated to by current Marauders that swung his opinion in McMaster’s favour.
“I think it really helped that people here were really nice,” says the outside. “Some schools you would go to, guys would see that you were a rookie and not care about you.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a good player and they wanted me here.”
He issues an example to illustrate his point.
On the afternoon of this interview, Maar spent two hours with fifth-year middle Michael Sjonnesen. No mentoring was involved, no prescribed pairing. Merely friendship – fraternity that transcends the age and seniority barriers built up in so many varsity environments.
The young recruits will be on equally familiar terms with their new coach this season, having recently gotten their first taste of his approach on the sideline.
Preston helmed the Canadian National Junior Team this summer that included the pair and Marauder teammate Dan Groenveld.
En route to a NORCECA final that booked their place in next year’s World Junior Championships, the two came to grips with the uncompromising – but ultimately, rewarding – coaching style of McMaster’s decade-long leader.
“He definitely upped the intensity,” says Demyanenko of Preston.
“I was taken aback at first, but then I really liked it, because he had a lot of expectations for us and I think that motivated us to take it up to the next level.”
“I always thought that Dave was pretty reserved,” recalls Maar.
“I remember a couple of practices where things were not focused, and we got it. I was taken aback a little bit.”
“But as it went on, I started to appreciate it more and I realized that it didn’t come from a place of anger, but from the fact that he wanted the best for us.”
The freshman outside believes that he made significant strides under the summer tutelage of Preston, but acknowledges that he has much work to do before he can truly challenge the Marauders established hitters.
“This summer I learned a lot about how vital it is to stay engaged,” Maar explains. “Dave took me off a few times and told me, “You can’t just block and hit. You have to play defence.” That was a big step.”
“I think I have to learn a lot more about passing and defence before I can challenge the older guys as a complete outside. I have the basis, but they have the refined game. The passing is perfect.”
Maar is determined to reach the elite level set by his new teammates, and he argues that for as long as a higher bar exists, he will push himself to improve.
“I want people to be better than me, because that gives me a standard to look up to,” says the outside.
“It’s the same in the weight room. If you can see the older guys lifting more weight, you build slowly. It’s an addiction to drive yourself to catch them.”
Such a competitive spirit will be welcomed by Preston, who champions high-intensity practices and encourages players to simulate an in-game atmosphere.
Elliot believes that regardless of the roles that Demyanenko and Maar grow into this season, the Marauders as a whole will be better for their inclusion in that training mix.
“It’s going to show in our games, because we’re going to be working so much harder with these two big names who want to play right away,” says the sophomore middle. “Nobody wants to give up their spot for these guys.”
“It’s going to make the atmosphere in practice so much more competitive. They’ll be friendly battles, but everyone will be battling to show what they’ve got.”
With a third member of the Crush – 6’8” right side Jayson McCarthy – tagging along to McMaster, the team could have an intriguing future from a tactical standpoint.
“It could be a pretty unique combination,” Elliot admits.
“If you’re looking at us down the road, our middles could be smaller than our outsides. You don’t see that anywhere: smaller, athletic middles that will be good to close, and outsides with big, huge bodies.”
It’s an appealing prospect for those in Maroon and Grey. But before any of the Marauders talented freshmen can make their mark on court, they have to adjust to university life off of it.
“Nothing that you could say can really express it to us,” says Maar of the shock of first year. “You can’t make it real until you realize that you have a reading to do and you haven’t bought the book.”
“No one’s going to buy the book for you, you have to go and do it.”
Tomorrow, Maar could be part of a championship-winning volleyball program.
But today, he just needs to find a history textbook.