The Loyola men’s volleyball team is three seasons removed from its last national championship in 2015. That means this is the last Rambler senior class with championship experience.
The Ramblers lost three players after last season. Cole Murray and Jagger Kroener both graduated in May and Ben Plaisted left Loyola due to mental health issues, according to head coach Mark Hulse.
The Ramblers don’t have to shift the team’s style of play since they only lost three players, according to Hulse.
“Three [guys] out and three [guys] in, so not a huge change culturally, which is a good thing sometimes,” Hulse said. “You’d rather cultivate who’s in the gym than have to recreate the wheel.”
Filling the three open spots on the roster are first-years Devin Joslyn, Garrett Zolg and Thomas Kovanic. According to Hulse, the first-years have brought a lot of competition into the gym.
“The three new guys have been fantastic,” Hulse said. “The three of them are really good volleyball players but also good competitors, good athletes and all-around guys. They’ve added a positive vibe to the gym.”
While there are only three new players on the roster this season, the decisions over who starts and who plays have yet to be fully decided, according to Hulse. Hulse and his coaching staff are still evaluating and making decisions, but Hulse said he likes the way open spots on the team create competition in practice.
“It’s super competitive, it’s chippy and it’s a good learning environment,” Hulse said. “There are some good open competitions, quite a few of them, frankly. Guys are embracing that part of it for sure.”
Losing a player like Plaisted is going to impact the team’s production, according to Hulse. Last year Plaisted led the team in kills with 297 and kills per set with 3.13.
“He’s a big piece, he took a lot of balls last year,” Hulse said.
Replacing Plaisted’s production will be a team effort, according to Hulse. Hulse said he’s hopeful senior Ricky Gevis will return at some point during the season after missing last season due to shoulder surgery. Hulse also said some of the younger guys on the roster like Kovanic, sophomore Kyler Kotsakis and junior Dane Leclair will fill some of Plaisted’s missing production.
In every season of Hulse’s three-year tenure at Loyola, Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) rival The Ohio State University (OSU) has taken home the national championship. Once again, the Buckeyes are the favorites to win the conference and the title, but Hulse said they aren’t as strong as they were in previous years.
The Buckeyes graduated a lot of their starters — including first team All-American Miles Johnson and second team All-American Christy Blough. However, they still have first-team All-American and 2016 player of the year, Nicolas Szerszen.
“They graduated some All-Americans, no doubt, but they still have the best player in the country in Szerszen,” Hulse said. “If you’ve got the best player in the country you’re still going to be pretty good. They graduated a chunk of that time which is good for everybody else but they’ll be preseason No. 1 and probably deserving of it.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to play OSU the first time this season Feb. 24 in Gentile Arena. However, before the team takes on the reigning national champions, the rest of MIVA will test them. Last season Loyola finished in a tie for fourth place with Ball State University in the conference behind OSU, Lewis University and Grand Canyon University. The rest of the conference is just as good as it was last year, according to Hulse.
“The rest of MIVA will be good,” Hulse said. “Lewis graduated a couple guys but they’re going to be really strong again, [Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne] is going to be way better than they were. The league is going to be tough. In short, no one is going to go 16-0, it’s going to be a dog fight and we’re going to be in the mix at the top.”
The Ramblers’ MIVA schedule starts Feb. 9 against Quincy University.
The men’s volleyball team is scheduled to open its season Jan. 5 against Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.