Loyola University-Chicago’s main athletic claim to fame is the 1963 NCAA Division I championship its men’s basketball team won.
But there’s another program on the Chicago north shore campus that is on the cusp of joining that royalty.
The Loyola men’s volleyball team has been a model of consistency and achievement since the program was started in 1996. The Ramblers have never had a losing season, sport a .700 all-time winning percentage, and have won five Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association regular-season titles.
Later this week the nation’s top-ranked Ramblers will make their second consecutive NCAA Division I-II tournament appearance and attempt to become only the third non-UCLA team in the history of the 45-year-old event to win the title as the host school (joining San Diego State in 1973 and Stanford in 2010).
Loyola (27-1), winners of 25 matches in a row, opens tournament play Thursday at the Gentile Center against either No. 4 seed Lewis or No. 5 seed Penn State (which square off Tuesday in one of two play-in matches). Other participants in the tournament include No. 2 BYU (which also earned a bye into the semifinals along with Loyola), No. 3 Stanford, and No. 6 Erksine. Loyola has played four of the other five NCAA participants, winning all six contests.
“This has a lot to do with the good team chemistry we have,” Loyola senior libero Peter Jasaitis said. “From the top guys to the guys coming off the bench to the coaches to the manager, everybody bought into the program. We show up every day and work hard and give our best. One of the phrases we use is doing the right thing. It’s not just showing up to practice. It’s getting extra reps and lifting in the weight room. Everybody in this program is hungry to win. We’re not just out here playing volleyball. We want to prove something to the rest of the nation.”
Loyola has taken care of business this season thanks to balance throughout its roster. Heading into the NCAAs, the Ramblers, who lost only one starter from last year’s 22-10 national semifinalist squad, have five players with 150 or more kills, led by 2013 MIVA Player of the Year and 2014 MIVA tournament MVP Joe Smalzer (291 kills, 62 service aces) and 2014 AVCA First Team All-American selection Thomas Jaeschke (285 kills). California native Cody Caldwell (257 kills), 6'10" sophomore middle Nick Olson (178 kills, 108 total blocks), and red-shirt freshman middle Owen McAndrews (166 kills) have also been key offensive threats for sophomore setter Peter Hutz (11.37 assists per game). Jaeschke is only the third Loyola player to earn First Team All-American honors.
The load on defense is also equally distributed with five players posting 120 or more digs, paced by Jasaitis (167) and Jaeschke (164).
“We have a lot of talented guys out there,” Jasaitis said. “I don’t think we have the most talented team out there, but top to bottom we have a lot of talented players out there and it’s showing at the end of the year here and that’s what it is all about.”
Loyola’s roster features a virtual who’s who of players that have appeared in recent Volleyball Boys’ Fab 50 lists. Eleventh-year head coach Shane Davis, a former player at Loyola, is now attracting players from all areas of the country. The Ramblers have four players with California ties, including former prep and club standout Cody Caldwell.
“Over the years we’ve been able to attract some quality recruits,” Davis said. “We’re getting the right guys in the program and these guys are developing and growing. We have that piece going for us plus some real good upper-class leadership. We’ve definitely been building to this the past five years. Guys such as Cody Caldwell, Trevor Novotny and Thomas Jaeschke have won [club] national championships. Getting these types of quality guys in the program has been huge.”
Caldwell said the team has been able to thrive thanks to a laser-focused approach it takes.
“Everybody that comes into this program works hard and doesn’t look to the future,” he noted. “The next thing we look forward to is the next practice or the next match.”
Caldwell, the 2011 Mizuno/Volleyball Boys' High School Player of the Year, acknowledged the team is excited about the No. 1 national ranking it has enjoyed throughout the majority of the season. However, the Ramblers are taking that with a grain of salt.
“It does all make us feel good,” Caldwell said. “It’s great because it shows the program is up and coming and continues to be strong. But it means nothing right now. We are looking for bigger and better things. We’re looking for a national title. We want to get to the next level.”
Jasaitis, who also lauded the commitment and support of the Loyola athletic department’s administration, noted a thought crossed his mind about the No. 1 national ranking when the team first was elevated to that position.
“It showed that we were No. 1 in the country,” he said. “The big question was are we going to win three months from now [in the NCAAs]? Everybody is pretty calm and grounded here. We know what we want to accomplish.”
And Loyola now has the opportunity to win its first NCAA title on its home court.
“That definitely would be a fairy-tale ending,” Davis said.