Four years after helping Loyola win its second straight NCAA men’s volleyball national championship, Thomas Jaeschke and Jeff Jendryk found themselves on the same team once again — but the stakes were much higher this time around.
Instead of an NCAA national championship on the line, they were competing with the United States men’s volleyball national team in an International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) qualifier in Rotterdam, Netherlands, for a trip to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It was the first of two Olympic qualifiers, meaning the U.S. would have had one more chance to qualify if they lost.
They succeeded, defeating the Netherlands 3-1 to send the U.S. to its 10th straight Olympics and its 12th overall appearance. Although the players won’t know if they’ll make the 12-player roster for the Tokyo games until it’s announced closer to the games, there’s a potential for two Loyola alumni to make the squad.
“Being able to qualify for the Olympics is huge,” Jendryk, 23, told The Phoenix in a phone interview. “It’s awesome to have that other Rambler you know really well from … being on the same team with you for years.”
After that 2015 championship, Jaeschke, 25, forewent his senior year to play professionally in Poland and played in all three matches of the 2016 Olympics as the U.S. won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, Jendryk went on to become Loyola’s first four-time All-American and ranks second in Loyola history with a .449 hitting percentage. He graduated in 2018.
But even in their one year together, Jendryk said Jaeschke — who, like Jendryk, grew up in north suburban Wheaton — left a lasting impact on him as he grew as a volleyball player.
“Seeing him as a captain on the team, a role model for sure, especially coming in as a freshman, you’re kind of doing your own freshman stuff and … he’s definitely a guy who will hold you accountable on the court and off the court,” Jendryk said. “I kind of took his role after freshman year … I was trying to teach the younger guys the stuff that I had to deal with and kind of hold my teammates accountable for everything.”
Jaeschke is considered one of the greatest players in Loyola history and was Loyola’s first Olympian in any sport since track runner Tom O’Hara in 1964. He was a two-time All-American during his three years at Loyola, the 2015 American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year and one of 13 players to tally 1,000 kills. His jersey hangs in a display case outside Gentile Arena honoring the back-to-back national titles.
Jendryk continued to follow Jaeschke’s career and said he continued dreaming about playing Olympic volleyball. Now that he’s helped the U.S. qualify, he said he’s one step closer to his goal of playing in the matches of a lifetime.
“It’s definitely a dream for me to first [qualify] for the Olympics, but the number one dream right now and the goal is to make it to that Olympic roster and hopefully I’ll be in Tokyo in 2020,” Jendryk said. “It’s something I go to bed thinking about.”
“He’s definitely a guy who will hold you accountable on the court and off the court.”
— Jeff Jendryk on Thomas Jaeschke
Jaeschke and Jendryk last played together when Jendryk was a first-year at Loyola and Jaeschke was a junior. When they teamed up on the U.S. national team, Jaeschke said Jendryk had changed since they last played in the 2015 national title game.
“[Jendryk] is a very different person now than when I played with him at Loyola,” Jaeschke said. “I was a junior and he was a freshman, so I’d already been through my kind of ‘freshman phase’ and figured out how important volleyball was to me, and he hadn’t. … It’s just funny how much has changed now in that little span of time.”
Until the Olympic roster is announced, the players will go back to their respective professional teams. Jendryk will head back to Germany and Jaeschke to Italy, where he signed in 2017.
But even though Jaeschke played in Rio in 2016, there’s no guarantee he’ll be in Tokyo — and he said he’s aware he could jinx it.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really like talking about it that much because … the rosters aren’t really set or anything until you get close to the games,” Jaeschke said. “People are like, ‘Oh, when you get to the Olympics,’ and I refuse to say that. … I’m just kind of trying to focus on here and now. When we get to that stage, we’ll handle that stage.”