CHICAGO — In what almost seemed like a war of attrition at the end, Loyola rode a home-court advantage to get past Penn State in five sets to advance to the NCAA men’s volleyball national-championship match for the first time in history.
The Ramblers, who lost in last year’s national semifinals, took the next step with a 25-20, 22-25, 25-21, 18-25, 15-11 victory to extend their winning streak to 26 matches and certainly justify their current No. 2 ranking and tournament No. 1 seed.
Which is why when coach Shane Davis met with his team in the locker room, he told the Ramblers, “Congratulations, you put the program in a place it’s never been.”
Loyola (28-1) faces Stanford in Saturday’s title match in Gentile Arena, its home venue that was packed with raucous supporters. Stanford beat BYU in five sets, marking not only the first time since 2006 that a semifinal went five, but the first time in NCAA history that both did so. It’s also worth noting that in the two matches the four teams combined for a whopping 68 service errors, 21 each by Loyola and Stanford, 15 by BYU, and 11 by Penn State.
MIVA Player of the Year Thomas Jaeschke led everyone with a career-high 24 kills in 38 swings and hit .474. Cody Caldwell added 15 kills and setter Peter Hutz had 60 assists.
“It was a hard-fought match and I was glad we were able to grind it out,” said Davis, who Wednesday night was named the AVCA Coach of the Year.
Penn State saw not only the end of a 10-match winning streak but also its season end 25-7. The Nittany Lions advanced with a Tuesday-night play-in victory over Lewis.
“The match tonight was exactly what we expected,” said veteran Penn State coach Mark Pavlik, who took his team to its 16th consecutive national semifinal and 29th overall.
“We talked about playing teams the second time around and playing them better and I think we did.”
In a regular-season meeting, Loyola of the MIVA beat Penn State of the EIVA on the same floor, 25-23, 20-25, 25-19, 25-22.
Penn State was led Nick Goodell’s 18 kills. Peter Russell added 17 and younger brother Aaron 15.
“This was such a fun match tonight,” Pavlik continued. “The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but that doesn’t take away from the match that was out there. I thought going into it that the team that believed in their physicality the longest was going to win, and I thought Loyola stayed with their physicality longer than we did at the end of game five.”
In the fifth set, it almost seemed neither team wanted to win. When McAndrews served an error to make it 7-7 it was the 10th point of the set that came either through a hitting or serve error.
“Game five quite possibly may have set men’s volleyball back 30 years,” Pavlik said. “The first seven or eight points, both teams were trying so hard. You could just see it.”
“It felt like in that fifth set nobody wanted to win it,” Davis said. “Everybody was afraid to make a mistake and that became a passive game with a lot of swing and nobody wanting to kill the ball. It was a very emotional match and up and down of playing well and playing poorly and I’m very happy the crowd got us going and pushed us over the edge in that fifth set.”
Caldwell had a kill to put Loyola up 9-7 and then big Nick Olson, a 6-foot-10 sophomore middle blocker, made the biggest impact of his career. He had a kill out of the middle to make it 9-7, and then blocked Penn State’s Peter Russell to make it 10-7. After yet another service error, Olson blocked Nick Goodell to make it 11-8.
“I just remember I knew that I had to turn some points on defense,” said Olson, who had 12 kills in 21 swings with no errors to hit .571. He had five block assists, as well. “I made sure I was going to be up big and do what I normally do every day in practice.”
Still it was far from over. Another service error and an Aaron Russell kill got Penn State to 11-10.
“If you had told me back in September that you would give me 10-10 against the No. 1 team in their gym in a fifth game in an NCAA semifinal, sign me up,” Pavlik said.
But it didn’t last.
After Loyola called time, Goodell had a service error. Peter Russell got a kill to make it 12-11, but Aaron Russell had three straight hitting errors to end it.
“It was fun. It had everything,” Pavlik said. “There was some outstanding serving, there were some great rallies, there were some great pursuits, everything you would want in an NCAA championship match.”
Getting to that title match, however, is something Peter Russell, ending a great career, never got to do.
“I felt like this team improved every day this season and we were just inches away from winning that match,” Russell said. “I’m incredibly proud of this team and had an absolute blast being with them. I know it stings but we’re going to walk out of here with our heads high. The team is going to be very good next year. They’re only losing me. They’re going to be very good.”