Final 6 Preview: NCAAs Take Flight in Chicago

What non-West Coast team will make it to the final?

Geoff Powell, Lewis
Lewis Athletics
Geoff Powell, Lewis

Perhaps it’s the Second City, but Chicago will be the first city this week in the minds of everyone connected with men’s volleyball, from the Flying Fleet of Erskine to the Cougars of BYU.

And, regardless of what happens in the so-called play-in matches and/or NCAA semifinals, a team that is not from the West Coast will be in Saturday’s championship match.

“There’s a great representation at the championships and Loyola has done a great job,” eighth-year Stanford coach John Kosty said. “I hear it’s either sold out or close to sold out and I know the tickets will get eaten up because Chicago is a great volleyball town, especially with club volleyball, so the atmosphere is going to be great.”

In the meantime, Derek Schmitt was right.

Once his Erskine men’s volleyball team won the Conference Carolinas tournament and clinched the league’s inaugural bid to the NCAA final 6, the coach predicted a sixth seed. Accordingly, the Flying Fleet (21-6) take on third-seeded Stanford (22-8) in the first of two Tuesday-night matches at Loyola University-Chicago, which is not only the host but the No. 1 seed.

The Erskine/Stanford winner gets second-seeded and MPSF Champion BYU (21-8) on Thursday.

But on Tuesday, it’s all about Chicago, because another area team, Lewis (23-7), is the No. 4 seed and plays No. 5, EIVA champion Penn State (24-6), in a match that is sure to be heated on the court and boisterous off. In their only meeting this year, Penn State won at Lewis in suburban Romeoville, Ill., 3-1.

The Lewis/Penn State winner gets Loyola (27-1) and should Lewis win, the local roots would run deep.

Tenth-year Lewis coach Dan Friend and Loyola’s Shane Davis are more than just rivals. The two coaching buddies actually talked about this exact scenario last fall.

“We said if we could both go out and have great years one of us might get one of the at-large bids,” said Friend, whose team got exactly that. “I think [Loyola] holding down the No. 1 spot all year helped us. We have three losses to those guys and they were all close games. There was some weight to that.”

The Lewis schedule overall no doubt held plenty of weight and had to figure into the NCAA decision to take the Flyers over Pepperdine. Lewis beat BYU on Jan. 4, in Romeoville 3-1, lost at Stanford 3-1, even had a 3-1 home victory over Erskine and had three four-set losses to Loyola, including last weekend in the MIVA title match.

“We happened to schedule the teams from the other conferences who did well,” Friend said, noting that his is the only school in the field of six that played all five of the other team.

When Friend came to Lewis, taking over a program rocked by NCAA violations in a bad way, he was befriended by Davis and even coached for him and his wife in their D1 club.

“I have a lot of respect for him and how he does things, and he runs a classy program,” Friend said.

Clearly the two colleges have spearheaded the growth of men’s volleyball in the Midwest.

Two years ago, Lewis made it to the final four, losing to USC in the national semifinals. Last year, Loyola took the MIVA bid and made it to the final four, giving eventual champion UC Irvine all it could handle.

Now, with the field expanded to six teams, they’re both in and friendships aside, the competition is fierce.

“I hate Loyola sometimes,” Friend said, laughing.

“But me and Shane are good buddies. We talk about a lot of stuff. Before the game [on Saturday] first I told him congratulations. And then I said it’s pretty fantastic that we’ve got both our programs in this spot right now, ranked so high in the country, so I think it’s pretty cool.”

Three Lewis players, junior outsides Geoff Powell (3.91 kills per set, .356 hitting percentage) and Greg Petty 3.45 kps, .329) and senior setter BJ Boldog (10.29 assists per set) played prominent roles on the team that made it to the semifinals two years ago.

Friend was hard at it Sunday, working up a game plan for Penn State. In the March 22 match at Lewis, Penn State won 21-25, 25-19, 26-24, 25-20.

“Having played all the teams in the field puts us in a great spot,” Friend said, “both mentality-wise and for the coaching staff, how we’re prepping and preparing.”

Stanford never played Erskine, but Kosty wasn’t taking anything for granted. The Cardinal never left Utah, waiting to hear Sunday morning’s announcement and then flying to Chicago in the afternoon.

“We’re honored to play them for the first time in NCAA competition,” Kosty said. “We think it’s great that a new conference has hit the big time and is playing for a national championship. We haven’t had an opportunity to watch them all too much, but we know they’re a solid team and we’re going to prepare like we always prepare.”

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