The men’s volleyball program was once the poster child of Loyola Athletics, a spot solidified by back-to-back national championships in 2014 and 2015. The program remained in that spot until last year’s men’s basketball Final Four run transformed Loyola into a basketball school overnight.
According to men’s volleyball senior setter Dane LeClair, the team is more than happy to share the spotlight. LeClair said the spirit generated from the Final Four run has benefitted all of Loyola Athletics and “the vibe has totally changed.”
“It infected everywhere,” LeClair said. “It just permeated throughout the school and Loyola athletics was put on the map.”
LeClair said the run has fast-tracked Loyola Athletics in the right direction. He cited the increase in fandom and the construction of the new Alfie Norville Practice Facility both as promising signs.
“There’s that visual representation that this school wants to get somewhere,” LeClair said.
Senior outside hitter Collin Mahan agreed with LeClair’s statements, saying the team has fed off basketball’s new following. Nowadays Mahan’s Loyola gear is much more recognizable off-campus.
“Anywhere I go, anyone who follows basketball whatsoever will be like ‘Oh Loyola, that was quite a run they had,’” Mahan said. “Before that I’d walk around with Loyola stuff and people had no idea what that was.”
LeClair said the impact of this change was immediate. The heart of the men’s volleyball season ran through March Madness last year, and LeClair said as basketball kept winning, the attendance for volleyball games kept increasing.
LeClair used to try to high five every Loyola fan in the stands, but the attendance grew so much he said he couldn’t reach everybody anymore.
“Usually I can recognize a lot of [fans at home games] because they’re repeat attenders,” LeClair said. “But now it’s just like ‘who are you?’ This is great.”
Going into the 2018-19 school year, both Mahan and LeClair said the rise in school spirit is still apparent surrounding all Loyola sports teams. Whereas Loyola student sections used to consist mainly of athletes supporting other athletes, this year there has been a noticeable jump in representation from the student body.
“The first women’s volleyball home game, they never really get that many people at their games, and the entire student section was full,” Mahan said. “I’ve never seen that in my four years here.”
While the Final Four run has brought all Loyola sports teams closer together, Mahan said the run specifically tightened the relationship between men’s volleyball and men’s basketball. Before the tournament, Mahan said the teams didn’t have much of a relationship.
“Us as teams have never been that close which is interesting because we’re the two better teams on campus, so you’d think we’d hang out,” Mahan said. “But not until this year we’ve been friends.”
Now, LeClair said — with what sparked from a friendship between junior middle blocker Kyle Piekarski and redshirt senior guard Marques Townes — each roster “just broke bread together.”
“It’s kind of like game recognize game,” LeClair said. “Where it’s like ‘yo, you’re good at what you do, we’re good at what we do, we’re obviously similar character people, so let’s hang out, let’s throw down.’”
Apart from an increase in spirit and a new friendship, the Final Four run has helped end the men’s volleyball team’s continuous case of mistaken identity. Even with the program’s success, LeClair said his team has been mistaken for the men’s basketball team throughout his career due to their tall frames.
“When we’re on the road, we get that a lot,” LeClair said. “You see five 6’8” dudes walk into a building followed by five more 6’4” guys … we’re just huge dudes walking everywhere.”
Men’s basketball’s new fame has helped put an end to this occasional mix-up, especially on campus because the players are now much more recognizable, a change Mahan said he has enjoyed.
“Especially with how much the student population followed the basketball team I think they know who’s on the team … so the fact that we’re not getting mistaken for basketball players more is pretty cool,” Mahan said.
As Loyola’s becoming the other sports juggernaut will be the first to admit it’s felt the change in more ways than one.
The men’s volleyball season is scheduled to begin in Jan. 4, while the men’s basketball season is set to tip off Nov. 6.