The Loyola women’s volleyball team (11-4, 3-0), a squad that went 5-24 last season, surpassed outside expectations by closing out the non-conference slate with an 8-4 record. Now Loyola, picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll, has entered conference play with the goal to prove their success wasn’t a flash in the pan.
Senior outside hitter Gabi Maciagowski, who is fourth on the team in points scored this season with 115.5, said the team is not stuck in self-congratulation, but focused on the conference slate ahead.
The Ramblers got off to a flying start in their first three conference matchups, starting with a 3-2 victory over Evansville Sept. 21 and a 3-0 sweep over Indiana State University Sept. 22. The Ramblers returned home to sweep defending MVC champion Missouri State University 3-0 Sept. 24. The 3-0 conference start is Loyola’s best since 2004, when it was a member of the Horizon League.
“It’s a brand new season now,” Maciagowski said. “No one cares what you did in [non-conference] anymore.”
Head coach Amanda Berkley said she had to foster a more competitive atmosphere in the non-conference season — and the team needed to learn how to win games.
Berkley said the team demonstrated the ability to find ways to win. Along with its winning record, Loyola has gone 2-0 this season in matches that went five sets.
Now that the program has strengthened its mental game, the players’ focus has shifted to execution Berkley said.
“I think we learned that we’ve got to focus on passing and ball control,” Berkley said. “If we pass, we can do a lot of great things.”
Berkley said it was the team’s inconsistent passing game and inability to set up hitters that cost them a close result in their upset attempt against Big 10 foe Northwestern University Sept. 15. Against tougher competition, Maciagowski said the team’s passing game is the key to sustaining success or falling by the wayside.
“I think our serve and pass game is what’s going to make or break us,” Maciagowski said.
Loyola will be tested on whether or not it improved in that department in the MVC. Maciagowski said traditional MVC powers University of Northern Iowa and Missouri State University look solid again, and even some of the lower teams are performing well. As of publication, six out of 10 MVC teams have posted winning records, including Loyola.
“The Missouri Valley Conference is very, very tough, so we have to come ready to play every night,” Berkley said. “We can’t take any days off.”
Maciagowski said the conference slate will also be tougher because of the familiarity among the teams. With two chances to play every opponent and scouting reports, Maciagowski said no team has the element of surprise.
After Loyola’s strong non-conference performance, she said that teams even view the team “pretty high up” in the standings now.
“We’ve been playing these teams for so many years now,” Maciagowski said. “We know what they’re made out of, they know what we’re made out of.”
Maciagowski said the players believe they can compete with the top teams in the MVC. Now that the team has a taste of winning, Maciagowski said the Ramblers head into conference play gunning for a MVC tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth. Since joining the MVC in the 2013-14 season, Loyola has only made the conference tournament twice and has never captured a MVC title.
“That’s been our goal for a while and we haven’t had the opportunity to do that,” Maciagowski said. “Now with the new coaching staff, with Amanda, and other players stepping up I think we can really do that.”
Loyola is set to face Northern Iowa in their fourth conference match of the season Sept. 28 at Gentile Arena.