To be the best, you need to beat the best.
Loyola’s men’s volleyball team has established itself as one of the best collegiate men’s volleyball programs in the country, and its conference foes are aiming to dethrone the conference champions.
The Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) tournament begins on April 16. The winner of the tournament earns a place in the NCAA National Tournament, in which Loyola has competed in for three years.
For 10 years, the conference title has largely been held by four schools — Loyola, Lewis University, IPFW and The Ohio State University — with schools like Ball State University consistently on the cusp. Loyola has won the last three MIVA tournament titles, winning two NCAA National Championships, too.
Kris Berzins, assistant coach for the No. 12 in the nation Ramblers, said the process of winning doesn’t change much whether it’s the first or last game of the season.
“You can only control the opportunity you have … that day,” said Berzins. “[Being] a champion is a really big idea. We can break that down into … pieces we can control.”
The Ohio State Buckeyes’ head coach, Pete Hanson, said the conference and his team have continued to improve for the past 10 years. MIVA teams have continued to develop their programs and train athletes to be more competitive on a national stage, according to Hanson. The MIVA conference has won three of the last five NCAA tournaments, and last year’s championship game featured two MIVA teams, Loyola and Lewis, with the Flyers ultimately falling to the Ramblers in a thrilling five-set match.
Lewis’ head coach Dan Friend said that although the loss was disappointing, the game was good for both programs.
“[It was] pretty neat that you had two Chicago teams in the National Championship,” said Friend. “I fall into [the rivalry] a little bit … [I take] pride in competing [against Loyola]. It’s got no more impact than any other conference game, but it’s … bragging rights.”
With a 15-12 record, No. 13 Lewis still holds the fourth spot in the conference rankings. Friend said the team’s record doesn’t define its ability to compete against opponents.
Friend said volleyball relies on momentum, and there is a danger of peaking too early.
“Sometimes you get one bad loss and it rattles you,” Friend said. “Ohio State’s on a ride right now. How long can they sustain that?”
The Buckeyes hold a 22-3 overall record and are 13-1 in the MIVA conference. Ohio State is also on a 14-game winning streak and has swept the Ramblers twice. While on top of the MIVA rankings, Hanson said the Buckeyes are not complacent and work with the same intensity every day.
“You might say our record has shown we’ve been able to keep momentum,” Hanson said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true or not. Momentum switches fairly often in volleyball … I think it’s a matter of how you manage getting yourself back on track and how you manage dealing with the other team’s momentum.”
No. 9 Ball State currently ranks second in the conference rankings. After a disappointing 2014-15 season, head coach Joel Walton said his team has succeeded thus far but is far from comfortable.
“There’s still a lot to be figured out,” said Walton. “The way we’ve played this year … our margin of victory is relatively slim. We don’t have the luxury of looking past any of our opponents and expecting any match to be an easy victory.”
Despite the apprehension, Walton said he is confident in his team and that the quality of play in the conference has improved.
“We’ve [consistently] been one of the top … programs in the MIVA,” he said. “Last year, our league was incredibly tough. It’s a real testament [to the strength] of our league when you look in the last five years and see three MIVA teams winning National Championships.”
Loyola benefitted from great players throughout its two title runs. Players like Thomas Jaeschke and Cody Caldwell created mismatches for opposing teams. Buckeyes’ head coach Hanson, not wishing to discredit the Ramblers, said he wants to see how the rest of the Ramblers perform now that those players are gone.
“Let’s face it, when you have a two-time National Player of the Year in Thomas Jaeschke, he can make everyone around him a lot better,” Hanson said. “Well, he’s no longer there. I mean, that’s like taking … Michael Jordan off the Chicago Bulls. How good are the rest of the guys? It’s a matter of who handles their business the best … You never know ‘til you get there.”
Although Loyola has been the king for two years, Hanson and the rest of the MIVA are eyeing a coup. As the MIVA tournament approaches, all the coaches agreed that the mentality of a team is vital for success and the teams should continue to work hard every day.
“The reality with college sports is you’re going to lose a guy,” Berzins said. “We have to make sure we’re preparing the younger guys to step into those shoes. We’re definitely poised … moving into the playoffs. They’re going to definitely test us. I think we’re going to test them as well.”
The top eight teams in the MIVA conference are expected to participate in the MIVA tournament, which begins April 16. The winner of the conference will then receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which is hosted by Penn State University this year.