The Loyola men’s volleyball team (2-2) is ranked No. 8 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll after defeating then- No. 3 Brigham Young University (BYU) 3-2 in its season opener Jan. 5 and falling to then- No. 7 University of California-Irvine 3-1 Jan. 6.
The Ramblers split two matches to begin a nine-game homestand, defeating George Mason University 3-1 Jan 12 and falling to No. 2 Long Beach State University 3-0 Jan. 13.
Having reached the Final Four of the NCAA tournament four of the past five seasons, BYU seemed like a tough competitor for Loyola to open the season against. But due to its similar playing style, head coach Mark Hulse said he believes BYU is one of the easier top-ranked teams for his team to play.
“They are a really good program. I think they play a lot like we play,” Hulse said. “They are big guys. Stylistically they are real similar to us. It makes sense. Stylistically there are a few programs that are very different that are tough for us early, these guys seem to make sense.”
Defeating BYU was a huge confidence builder for the team, according to Hulse. He said the coaches knew the Cougars were good but it was nice for the players to get reassurance that they were ready to take on top-10 teams.
“I think it is huge just because [BYU is] a really good team and a cool environment like that is just a great start off to the season and a great confidence booster for the guys going into this weekend,” junior outside hitter Collin Mahan said.
For the first time in four seasons, the Ramblers started off on the road. Hulse said it’s tough to win those games but he loves to get on the road early.
“You get to build some camaraderie, you’re spending too much time together, you’re in minivans, you’re in hotel rooms together,” Hulse said. “It’s good for us … we are definitely happy to do it early on, but it will be nice to be home for a while.”
The team’s cohesiveness will be important as it heads into its tough Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) schedule. With Loyola winning championships in 2014 and 2015 and The Ohio State University winning in 2015 and 2016, a team from MIVA has brought home the title in each of the last four seasons.
Hulse is in his seventh season with the program — his third as the head coach — and has seen Loyola win its back-to-back championships. He said he knows winning one national championship is hard, but winning consistently isn’t easy at all.
“The older guys were freshmen when we won in 2015. They are the ones who may have the experience having won one,” Hulse said. “I think what they have probably learned is that it’s hard, and it’s hard to do it over and over again … I would assume that those guys have [appreciation] as much as anybody because they realize now having tried it, and not succeeded at not winning a championship twice, how hard it is.”
Hulse has watched OSU also win back-to-back national championships. The Buckeyes are currently ranked No. 1 in the AVCA poll and Hulse said the team still has the best player in the country, senior Nicolas Szerszen. Szerszen has been named to the AVCA All-American First Team twice.
“I think we match up better this year with [Ohio State] than we did last year,” Hulse said. “A few different guys on both teams that I think will make sense [and be] a better matchup [Feb. 24].”
To prepare for other games this season, junior middle blocker Paul Narup said the team plans to watch film and learn the players they are going to be facing this season.
“Making sure we know the scouting report and making sure we know what we got on the other side of the net so we are able to do the best we can do on our side of the net [is important],” Narup said.
New players like first-year setter Garrett Zolg — who was named Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Defensive Player of the Week Jan. 9 — will help bring new aspects to the team they haven’t had before, according to Hulse.
“Defensively he is a different animal than what we are used to seeing, especially in our league,” Hulse said. “He’s a West Coast guy and sometimes those guys, growing up on the beach, learn how to play a little better defense. He’s going to give people fits. What he does in the back row, defensively, is the best part of his game.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on Grand View University and St. Francis University at home Jan. 19-20.