While most teams start their seasons against easy-win opponents, the No. 9 Loyola men’s volleyball team (3-2) was thrown to the wolves, facing three top-five ranked opponents in four matches to open its 2017 campaign.
To kick things off, Loyola, which was ranked No. 11 before the season started, hosted No. 2 UCLA. After falling into an early 2-0 hole, the Ramblers couldn’t get anything going in the third set. Despite sophomore outside hitter Will Tischler’s team-leading nine kills, the Bruins swept Loyola 3-0.
The Ramblers bounced back from the loss by gathering a sweep of their own over unranked New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). But Loyola faced a true test against 2016 NCAA National Champion Runner-Up, No. 3 BYU.
The Ramblers knew the Cougars would challenge them, according to head coach Mark Hulse. After Loyola won the first two sets with ease, BYU came back to take the third set. With four Ramblers tallying double figures in kills, a fourth set surge gave Loyola the 3-1 upset.
The Ramblers’ sophomore outside hitter Collin Mahan said the two wins restored much-needed confidence for the team after its opening loss to UCLA.
“That first [match] against UCLA … was our first game, so it was hard to get the jitters out,” said Mahan, who’s averaging 2.5 kills per set this season. “After that, we got our confidence with NJIT and followed through against BYU.”
Junior middle blocker Jeff Jendryk said Loyola’s upset over BYU was the Ramblers’ first big win of the season, a victory he credited to the team’s preparation.
“It started with … the practice schedule we have,” Jendryk said. “[Practice consists of] just being competitive and forcing each other to get better, and it … showed in that game.”
After the BYU upset, the Ramblers hosted Pepperdine University, Hulse’s alma mater, which was ranked No. 5 in the nation at the time. In a thrilling back-and-forth match that went to a decisive fifth set, Pepperdine ultimately came out on top 3-2.
Hulse said the match stung a bit, but the team couldn’t dwell on it for long.
“Pepperdine was a tough pill to swallow,” said Hulse. “The toughest thing was [playing] the next day.”
A matinee against Harvard University closed out Loyola’s opening homestand. After taking the first set 26-24, the Ramblers handled the Crimson with ease to take the match in straight sets.
Loyola’s 3-2 start this season is similar to last season’s start, when the Ramblers dropped their first two games to ranked opponents No. 9 University of California – Santa Barbara and No. 1 BYU. After that slow start, Loyola defeated No. 2 University of California – Irvine and No. 10 Penn State University, victories that started off a seven-game winning streak.
Hulse said he purposely scheduled his opening matches against top-five teams because then he could evaluate the team’s performance and use it as a gauge of where the team is at before starting conference play.
“The first week was … to set where the bar is,” Hulse said. “The score is beside the point. It’s about how good [we can] be.”
He added that while the 3-2 start is solid, his goal is for the team to get better regardless of wins or losses.
“We’re definitely happy with where we’re going,” Hulse said. “We’re getting some good results in the development process, and [that’s] leading into some good results in the wins and losses columns.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to hit the road to take on two more ranked opponents, No. 15 Penn State on Jan. 19 and No. 11 George Mason University on Jan. 21.