Ranking sixth in the country and winning 14 of its last 16 matches, the Loyola men’s volleyball team (16-4, 6-1) is in the midst of one of its most impressive seasons since its two national championship campaigns.
Halfway through conference play, the Ramblers sit atop the standings in the tough Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA).
Head coach Mark Hulse said he credits the team’s success to the players’ mental toughness.
“We’re working real hard and I think there is a significant amount of maturity that this group has,” Hulse said. “I think when you kind of put those two things together, we’ve been able to pretty consistently perform close to our best.”
The Ramblers went 6-1 in the first seven games of conference play, with a lone loss to Ball State University Feb. 17. Loyola closed out the seven-game stretch in statement-making fashion. On Feb. 24, the Ramblers rallied back from two sets down to topple then-No. 4 The Ohio State University 3-2 at Gentile Arena, and swept then-No. 7 Lewis University 3-0 at Gentile Feb. 28.
The victory over Ohio State — the two-time defending NCAA champion — has proven to be one of the biggest wins for the Ramblers so far this season in terms of conference implications and gaining confidence, according to Hulse.
“It was a great win program wise … and it put us in a good spot towards the top of the league down the stretch,” Hulse said.
With Ohio State sitting one game behind Loyola in conference standings, the win gives Loyola valuable distance going down the stretch in a tight conference race.
Heading into the match against Ohio State, Loyola was no stranger to top competition, as Loyola scheduled matches against eight ranked opponents in its 13 non-conference matches.
“We sought out to play as hard of a schedule as we could possibly create and I think we accomplished it,” Hulse said.
The experience against ranked opponents prepared the Ramblers for MIVA competition and postseason play, according to Hulse.
“We wanted to know where the bar was,” Hulse said. “We wanted to know, was our good good enough and [we wanted] to know what level do we need to expect to play at to win our league. I thought [our schedule] has prepared us well.”
The team has proven itself worthy of the challenges its daunting schedule has presented, notching eight wins against 13 ranked opponents. Led by 2017 Second Team All-MIVA junior outside hitter Collin Mahan and three-time All-American senior middle blocker Jeff Jendryk, the Ramblers have been able to hold their own against the nation’s best because of their talent and depth.
“You’ve got to have the horses, so to speak. No doubt, I think we do,” Hulse said. “It’s been a team effort, which makes it real tough to prepare for us because we have five, six, [or] seven guys who can hurt you.”
The wins over Ohio State and Lewis also continued a season-long narrative of success for the Ramblers at home. The win against Lewis marked Loyola’s 10th straight victory at Gentile Arena.
“We’ve held home court against the top teams in our league, which I can’t state strongly enough the importance of holding down home court,” Hulse said.
Moving forward to the second half of conference play, the route to Loyola’s first MIVA regular season title, since 2014, points away from the friendly confines of Gentile. Loyola will face difficult road tests at Lewis March 17 and at Ohio State March 29.