To say Loyola’s men’s club volleyball team had a “special” regular season would be an overstatement. Although the team earned top-five finishes in all but one of its four spring tournaments, it struggled to consistently play well early in the season. Luckily for the Ramblers, none of that mattered when the time came to drive down to Kansas City, Missouri, for the 2015 national tournament.
The team eventually earned ninth place out of 48 teams. Loyola went 2-1 on the first day of the tournament as it defeated the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ball State University while losing to Boston University.
On day two, the team beat the University of Iowa, but lost to Syracuse University before falling to Miami University of Ohio, the tournament’s eventual champion, the next day.
The top-10 finish made the tournament the team’s best performance all season, considering the 48-team field that made up Loyola’s division.
“A lot of the tournaments we went to … we did pretty well in, but we never really made it as far as we did at nationals,” said sophomore outside hitter Greg Mattern. “Once we got to nationals, I think we really pulled it together as a team.”
Mattern also said the team’s finish came as a surprise considering where the Ramblers started this season.
After losing senior middle hitter Derek Guimond, one of the team’s best players who moved on to play for the Division I men’s volleyball team, and a number of graduating seniors, the team had to adjust and redefine each player’s role.
“[It was difficult] working in our new players and trying to figure out what works best for everybody, what positions everybody was good at and just trying to experiment with positions to eventually create some cohesion within the team,” Mattern said.
One of those new arrivals was sophomore Firas Hentati. He didn’t make the cut at his first tryout with the team, and even after he made it the second time he tried out, he struggled to find a rhythm and play consistently. But Hentati put that behind him this spring and improved enough to be the starting libero for the team at nationals.
“[At the beginning of the year], he would have one bad play, and he couldn’t shake it,” said sophomore right side hitter Matt Metzler. “It puts a smile on my face to see how much he’s developed and how much confidence he’s created. He [changed] from this quiet little guy who wouldn’t say a word at practice to a guy who just snaps at the right moment and brings a nice energy and fire.”
Hentati proved to be a key factor in the team’s ninth-place finish at nationals. He and the rest of his teammates put their early season inconsistencies behind them to make the once-a-year weekend a success.
“It’s nerve-racking [and] it’s exciting,” Metzler said. “The moments that we get to create there are always fun. It’s the big stage for a little stage that is club volleyball.”