Loyola has now seen two programs reach NCAA Tournaments within the past nine months — men’s basketball last March and, most recently, the women’s soccer team. Director of Athletics Steve Watson pointed to the achievements of all the programs this fall and said the rising successes of athletics hasn’t happened overnight.
“It’s really been a growth over a number of years,” Watson said. “I think the more recent success started with our men’s volleyball team, winning their back-to-back National Championships in  and  … I think what we’ve seen over the last five or six years is really building up to more competitive success and we’re really seeing it across the board.”
With women’s soccer headlining the fall, Watson said he was impressed with how the other teams finished their respective seasons as well. Men’s soccer finished in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference and women’s volleyball has started to turn things around after going 5-24 last season.
“The soccer program has had a fantastic fall, [women’s] volleyball has made unbelievable progress this year with new leadership,” Watson said. “The success we saw with cross-country and the women’s golf team, our fall was phenomenal. I think it can carry through with our other programs as well.”
Even though Loyola Athletics is gaining more recognition and respect nationally, Watson said the department hasn’t changed the way it goes about business. He added the momentum of the success is what drives everyone in the department, but they also won’t lose sight of what’s really important.
Loyola’s graduation success rate for student-athletes in 2016-17 was 99 percent, which was tied for first with schools including Harvard University and Yale University, The Phoenix reported. Community service is another focal point of the athletics department. Last year, The Phoenix reported a contest was created to boost student-athletes’ attendance at games and community service was one of the factors in the competition.
“There are a lot of things that it’s not going to change, [such as] the emphasis we have on academics and the importance we put on community service and giving back,” Watson said. “Those are our non-negotiables, we won’t bend on those pieces. When you look at it from the competitive side, I think it makes you hungrier, and it makes everybody in the department more aware that that competitive piece is really out there and it’s attainable.”
Loyola as the men’s basketball team kept advancing in the tournament last March. Watson said seeing all of the people who had supported the team before the run enjoy the success was rewarding.
“It was so much fun to see the fans, supporters and alumni who had been with us for a really long time,” Watson said. “They’ve been through some not so great years, and to watch them enjoy the success was a lot of fun.”
After a successful fall, the men’s and women’s basketball teams, along with men’s volleyball, are ready to get things underway this winter. Watson said the goal is to keep progressing, and the program is constantly focused on not slowing down.
“We need to keep moving forward, keep the foot on the pedal,” Watson said. “We’re not going to bend on academics, we’re not going to bend on the service component that we expect out of all our teams and athletes. I think the next step for us is to keep moving in the right direction competitively and compete for more championships.”
Men’s volleyball is set to open its season Dec. 30 in an exhibition game against North Central College. Women’s basketball hits the road to battle with University of Illinois at Chicago Nov. 17 and men’s basketball is scheduled to host Niagara Nov. 14 at Gentile Arena at 7 p.m.