This season didn’t go as planned for the No. 14 Loyola men’s volleyball team (16-12, 9-7), which was eliminated in the quarterfinal round of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) tournament — for the first time in nearly two decades.
The Ramblers season came to an abrupt end after dropping their opening tournament match on April 15. Ball State University, the fourth seed, hosted Loyola, the fifth seed in the first round and beat the Ramblers 3-1. This was the second time Loyola lost to the Cardinals this season.
Second-year head coach Mark Hulse said he wasn’t discouraged by the team’s disappointing end to the season.
“I don’t think that we ended where we wanted to be goals wise,” said Hulse. “But I think if you take a step back and kind of look at the year as a whole, we did a lot of things that we wanted to do… we showed an ability to play at the level we need to play at to win a national championship.”
As far as what happened in playoffs, the team was admittedly short handed when their leading scorer, junior opposite Ben Plaisted was sidelined with a concussion. But according to Hulse the team was able to rally and first-year Kyler Kotsakis stepped up to fill Plaisted’s shoes. Kotsakis played an instrumental role in the single game Loyola won, scoring four kills.
“Everybody carried the load,” Hulse said of Plaisted’s absence. “It’s exactly what you want … the next man up sounds great, [but] I don’t have another Ben, but we got Kyler and Kyler did a great job…we just didn’t have quite enough fire power but it was good to see for the future the guys stuck together.”
After the 2016 season, Loyola lost four seniors, including three starters, while the Final Four teams in the 2016 tournament lost a combined two starters.
That being said, this season, Loyola had a relatively young team with 12 underclassmen — four of which were starters. The team’s inexperience showed against power teams like The Ohio State University, who swept Loyola in three sets twice this season, and UCLA and Long Beach State University, both of which also swept the Ramblers in three sets.
Loyola is losing two seniors, libero Jagger Kroener and outside hitter Cole Murray to graduation. Kroener, who played in four of the Ramblers 105 sets this season, isn’t a major loss to Loyola according to the stat sheet, but Murray, who appeared in 79 sets, is. Murray, a second-year transfer from Irvine Valley College, averaged 1.72 kills per set and nearly one dig per set this season.
Next season, Loyola is welcoming back key players Plaisted, junior middle blocker Jeff Jendryk and sophomore outside hitter Collin Mahan.
Plaisted averaged a team high 3.13 kills per set this season and notched double digits in kills in 17 straight matches. Plaisted had 116 more kills in his junior season (297) than he did in his sophomore season (181).
Although Jendryk’s number of kills dipped in the 2017 season — from 278 to 226, his blocking improved in his junior campaign. After tallying 11 solo blocks as a sophomore, he had 19 this season and averaged a team-best 1.16 blocks per set.
Mahan has made visible improvements since his first season at Loyola. He recorded 61 more kills this season than last, and led the team in digs (160).
Sophomore libero Avery Aylsworth was second on the team in digs this season and played in 105 sets for the Ramblers. He said the season was an opportunity for a young team to learn and grow.
“I think this year is a really … good year to … test out our young core with just the two seniors,” said Aylsworth. “We had a lot of guys on the court that were not necessarily upperclassmen, but you know with those two seniors they provided a lot of guidance and experience.”
The Ramblers ended the 2017 season No. 14 in the AVCA poll. Next year’s five seniors will be the last class with National Championship experience.