The Loyola men’s volleyball team has struggled to open its season. After starting 4-3, the Ramblers are looking to use their tough early schedule to help give their young roster confidence moving forward.
The Ramblers went 1-3 against ranked opponents in their back-and-forth first seven games, winning no more than two games in a row in that stretch.
Head coach Mark Hulse said he designed a difficult schedule so the team could analyze how it compared to the best teams in the country.
“When setting up our schedule for this season, I scheduled the best teams as possible to know where we stand and how we match up against them later in the season,” said Hulse.
Loyola’s roster this season includes six first-years, six sophomores and just two seniors, Jagger Kroener and Cole Murray. Kroener appeared in just 38 of a possible 89 matches in his first three seasons, while Murray transferred to Loyola from Irvine Valley College after his sophomore season. The Ramblers will have to rely on the experience of juniors such as Jeff Jendryk and Ricky Gevis to help get the young players through the tough stretches of the season, according to sophomore middle blocker Paul Narup.
“Having only two seniors just requires more people to step up as leaders and … bring the energy,” said Narup.
While the team doesn’t have the same amount of experience as the highest-ranked teams in the country, what they lack in age they make up for with enthusiasm, said junior libero Jake Selsky.
“It’s fun; the younger guys definitely bring a lot of energy to the gym,” said Selsky. “There’s not as much experience as you’d have with a larger number of seniors on your team, but the guys are learning quick, and they’re definitely working hard in the gym.”
The team now aims to move on to conference play with new momentum and confidence despite its record and inexperience, as it has competed with and defeated some of best teams in the country. The players have also gained some poise in the process, according to Hulse.
“We’ll just have to wait and find out [what will happen]. We play some really tough teams in the coming months, but I believe we’ve picked up some good confidence from these January games to help us be [as] successful as possible.” Hulse said.
The team’s schedule ramps up quickly in February. After a homestand with matches against Lindenwood University and Quincy University, the Ramblers are scheduled to hit the road to face defending champion No. 1 Ohio State University (OSU) on Feb. 11.
This daunting matchup is only made more challenging by the gauntlet Loyola must run in the two-week span after visiting Columbus. The Ramblers are scheduled to battle two more top-15 programs, No. 13 Ball State University (BSU) and No. 8 Lewis University. Hulse said Loyola has accomplished similarly difficult feats before and is more than capable of doing it again.
“We played the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 [teams] in the country, all within two weeks of each other earlier in the season,” said Hulse. “We’ve done this before, and it’s the nature of it; we play in a really, really tough conference.”
The conference schedule is made more difficult by the fact that the Ramblers have one of the youngest rosters in MIVA. The top three teams in the conference — OSU, Lewis and BSU — all have much more experience. OSU has five seniors, while Lewis and BSU each have four. The Buckeyes have just three players on their roster who haven’t won a national championship, while the Ramblers have 13 players without that keynote experience.
“With plenty of teams in our conference that have tons of experience and good players, it’s gonna be tough,” said Hulse. “The conference is as good as it’s been, and it’s gonna be really tough on any given night.”
Although it’s competing in one of the best conferences in men’s volleyball, Loyola remains confident about advancing through the MIVA tournament.
“We believe we’ll be successful, despite how tough our division can prove to be. Preparation is key, and the margins are really thin,” said Hulse. “That’s what this tough set of games to start the season taught us.”
The team is scheduled to host Lindenwood University on Feb. 3 and two more small local teams, Quincy University and McKendree University, in the following days. These will be the last matches before the Ramblers’ season heats up and their challenging conference schedule begins.