Cody Caldwell is not an excitable kind of guy.
“Best feeling of my life,” said the Loyola junior outside hitter, barely changing his facial expression.
That was kind of the norm for his team. When the serve of Stanford’s Scott Sakaida sailed past the far baseline, handing the Ramblers a 25-17, 19-25, 25-19, 25-15 NCAA national-championship victory, there was no dog pile.
No, as the home crowd went nuts inside a sold-out Gentile Arena, celebrating their school’s first national title in 51 years, the Ramblers simply joined together, jumped up and down, and then went to shake hands.
“This is a great way to go out, right? We haven’t lost since January,” senior libero Peter Jasaitis said with a big smile. “I’m just so thankful that everyone on our team bought into our system. We’re going to go back into the locker room and I’ve watched senior after senior after senior leave some advice. I’ve got no advice for these guys. I’m just going to thank them.”
They can all give thanks for one of the more remarkable runs in NCAA history, from the time Loyola lost in last year’s national semifinals to a year later when the Ramblers capped their 27-match winning streak with an NCAA championship. In the school’s history, Loyola had won only one other national title, that by the 1963 men’s basketball team, a fact which the volleyball team had been reminded of regularly.
Loyola (29-1) opened its season back in January by first avenging that NCAA loss to the team that eventually won it all in 2013, UC Irvine. And then the Ramblers beat BYU before falling at home to USC on Jan. 4. But that was it. Since then, Loyola was ranked No. 1 for most of the season, save for in the last poll when it fell to No. 2.
As if that final ranking mattered when the Ramblers and their 34-year-old coach, Shane Davis, hoisted the NCAA trophy, becoming the first Midwest team to win since Ohio State did in 2011 and the first team from the Central time zone to take home the championship. And talk about a big week: Just three days after winning the title, Davis’ wife, Andrea, gave birth to their second child.
“I feel wonderful. A couple of years ago I questioned whether I wanted to continue coaching, if I was any good at it, if I was great at it,” said Davis, a former player himself who is finishing his 11th year in a job for which he once was paid just a small stipend.
“Last year was a big year for me professionally in terms of 10 years of coaching. It was time to get the program to the next level and if I didn’t get it there last year, I needed to question the way I was doing things, and we made it.
“This year there was less pressure put on myself. I had some more life balance and obviously winning helped, but I approached things a little different.”
“We trust in Shane and he’s done wonders for this program,” Jasaitis said, “and it showed tonight.”
After Loyola won the first set fairly easily, Stanford rallied to win the second and seemingly was back in it. But it had no answers in the third set. And in the fourth the rout was on.
“We ran into a hot and hot-serving team tonight. They kept us off balance all night long,” said Stanford coach John Kosty, who took the Cardinal to the 2010 title when the event was hosted at Stanford, where the tournament happens to be again next year.
For the match, Loyola hit .452 and Stanford .252. Loyola had only three aces and 12 errors but served tough and made things difficult for the Cardinal.
Caldwell, named the tournament Most Outstanding Player, led with 20 kills in 32 swings and hit .562. The star of the team, sophomore outside Thomas Jaeschke, the MIVA MVP, didn’t have a kill in the first set and finished with 12, hit .333, and had a team-high 10 digs.
Senior right side Joe Smalzer also had 12 kills and hit .348. He and Jaeschke had eight digs apiece.
Brian Cook led Stanford (24-9) with 15 kills and Steven Irvin added 10. They’re both California guys, like some of the Loyola players, including Caldwell.
Smalzer and Jaeschke, however, hail from the Chicago area.
“I think we needed that Cali swagger,” Smalzer said. “They’ve been an integral part of growing us as a team and that experience they get from playing year-round over there transferred to us here.”
Smalzer, now 215 pounds but a paltry 150 when he got to Loyola, said he first became aware of Loyola volleyball when he was a sophomore in high school.
“I live about an hour away and it was close, and the coaching staff really clicked and the players really clicked, and back then I was recruited as a setter,” Smalzer said.
“Then I redshirted and grew.”
Just like the program.
“This is an awesome ending.”
• • •
In what almost seemed like a war of attrition at the end, Loyola rode a home-court advantage to get past Penn State in a late-night semifinal.
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.
Which is why when 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.”
Earlier, Stanford beat BYU in five sets (25-18, 21-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-12), marking not only the first time since 2006 that a semifinal went five, but also 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.
Loyola’s Jaeschke led everyone in the match against Penn State with a career-high 24 kills in 38 swings and hit .474. Cody Caldwell added 15 kills and setter Peter Hutz had 60 assists.
Nick Goodell led the Nittany Lions with 18 kills. Peter Russell added 17 and his younger brother Aaron contributed 15.
At the conclusion of the semifinals, Penn State saw not only the end of a 10-match winning streak, but also the end of its season with a final record of 25-7. The Nittany Lions had advanced with a 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.
“This was such a fun match,” he 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.”
“It was a hard-fought match and I was glad we were able to grind it out,” said Davis, who earned both AVCA and VBM Coach of the Year honors.
In their 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.
• • •
Earlier in the evening, Stanford's revenge match against BYU was a grind for both teams. The Cardinal had three losses to its MPSF rival this season, including five days earlier in Provo, Utah, in the league's tournament title match.
"It is hard to beat somebody four times and you know what, they had us," said Kosty. But in the end, Stanford came out on top and went to the title match for the first time since it won it all in 2010. "We made some really big plays," said the Stanford coach.
"This is the first best win I've had in my career," said Cook, who led the Cardinal with 19 kills, the last a back-row blast that ended the match.
Opposite Eric Mochalski added 18 kills and Irvin 17 for Stanford, which had advanced to the semifinals by winning a play-in match against Erskine.
BYU's season ended 21-9 despite yet another fantastic performance by Taylor Sander, the senior who earned both AVCA and VBM Player of the Year honors. Sander went out with a season-high 28 kills for the MPSF champions.
"Taylor Sander is an incredible player," Kosty said, "and [BYU's] entire team played really, really tough all the way to the end. It was an absolute battle and it was one point here or there, and that's how it usually goes with two evenly-matched teams."
Sander also had four service aces and teammate Josue Rivera added 10 kills.
But nothing could make up for seeing two changes to close out the fourth set and then three more ties, at 26, 27, and 28, before Stanford forced a fifth set.
"We had all the chances in the world to finish that set out. We didn't make the plays and they did," Sander said. "And it was the same in the fifth. We weren't able to buckle down and make those plays and they were able to capitalize. That was the match right there."
• • •
On the one hand, had Conference Carolinas not gotten an automatic bid, the NCAA men’s volleyball championships would not have expanded, nor would a school like Erskine have gotten to experience the big time.
On the other hand, if the tournament’s first play-in match in men’s history was any indication, neither Erskine nor its league are quite ready for such a stage.
Third-seeded Stanford made short work of the Flying Fleet from Due West, South Carolina, 25-14, 25-16, 25-16, to advance to the national semifinal against second-seeded BYU.
At the close of the third set, Erskine’s second season in its existence ended (21-7) while Stanford earned a fourth crack at MPSF rival BYU.
“Erskine is a good team and they run the program well,” eighth-year Stanford coach Kosty said. “They fought hard the whole night and I think the conference is just going to get better.”
That’s what Erskine counterpart Derek Schmitt hopes, especially after seeing Stanford hit .423 while his Flying Fleet struggled to a .043 mark. Stanford had 24 block assists and a solo, while Erskine had a total of four block assists. Clearly there was a size mismatch.
“We knew it was a big challenge,” Schmitt said. “Stanford’s been playing great volleyball, and they have one of the best offenses in the country.”
A pretty good defense, too, as they out-dug Erskine 37-24, which included 11 by libero Grant Delgado.
“They’re just solid all the way around,” said Schmitt, whose team once stood 4-5 early in the season’s schedule, including losses to Loyola, Lewis, and Penn State.
“It was just a great experience for my guys, being in this tournament.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t want to end the season like that,” said Erskine sophomore outside Mike Michelau, who had eight kills, eight digs, and one of Erskine’s two service aces. “We wanted to compete with them better, but in two years this team has come really far. I can’t wait to see what the next two years hold.”
Freshman outside Roberto Perez Vargas led Erskine with nine kills. His team trailed by just one point, 13-12, in the third set before Stanford pulled away and put a quick end to things.
“To be able to play against this level of competition makes us hungry to be here again next year,” Schmitt said. “It was a big step for us in year two, but I don’t think any of these guys are satisfied with that and are thinking what we have to do to get to the next level.”
Cook led with 12 kills and hit .519, while Irvin had nine kills. Mochalski had seven kills in 14 swings with one error.
• • •
Penn State, meanwhile, didn’t get into the semifinals simply by winning the EIVA. No, first the Nittany Lions had to win a play-in match.
And so they did, grinding out a tough four-set victory over Lewis, riding the explosive attacks of the Russell brothers, Peter and Aaron, and Nick Goodell, 27-25, 19-25, 25-23, 25-19.
Aaron Russell had a match-high 20 kills, nine digs, and four block assists.
His older brother, Peter, had 15 kills, six digs, and three block assists.
And Goodell, the 6'4" junior outside, had 18 kills, six digs, and a couple of block assists.
• • •
While the Loyola Ramblers continue to bask in the glow of their big win, it’s probably never too soon to start looking at next year, and Peter Russell offered this after the Nittany Lions’ loss to Loyola in the semis:
“I felt like this team improved every day this season and we were just inches away from winning that match. 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.”
Clearly, we can anticipate the 2015 season to be just as exciting as this year’s, if not more so.
Originally published in July 2014