Volleyball may be more closely associated with sandy beaches and sunny weather than brutal winters, food drenched in ranch or people saying “ope” whenever bump into someone.
But the Loyola men’s volleyball team is demonstrating the sport can flourish in the Midwest.
The team’s entire coaching staff consists of Midwest natives. Head coach Mark Hulse, associate head coach Matt McCarthy and assistant coach Connor Wexter are all from Illinois.
Of the group, Hulse was the only collegiate player who moved out of the region. Meanwhile, Wexter played at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin and McCarthy spent his college years playing for Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Loyola has five players on its roster who hail from the Midwest: seniors Kyle Piekarski and Kyler Kotsakis from Illinois, senior Ian Cowen from Ohio, and first-years Jack Yentz and Brian Voight from Wisconsin.
While volleyball may be the most popular girl’s high school sport in Wisconsin, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, men’s volleyball isn’t as popular in the state.
Not every high school offers the sport, so athletes such as Yentz turned to club teams to get a chance to play. In order to improve, Yentz said he knew he would have to take the rare, competitive opportunities to play in high school.
“[Playing volleyball in Wisconsin] was competitive,” Yentz said. “I knew from the start that if I wanted to be good, I had to play for the best team, so I went to play for the Milwaukee Volleyball Club and we kind of ran the ship in Wisconsin.”
The Milwaukee Volleyball Club was where Yentz first met Voight. Unlike Yentz, Voight was able to play for both his high school team and the Milwaukee club. However, he has also seen gender-based stereotypes toward the sport first-hand.
“In Wisconsin, basketball and football are the powerhouse sports,” Voight said. “A lot of time people say that volleyball is a ‘girl’s sport,’ but over the past few years it’s been growing. It’s more of a high-level sport now.”
The lack in popularity of men’s volleyball in the region isn’t exclusive to Wisconsin. McCarthy’s experience playing in both Illinois and Indiana has provided him with multiple perspectives on what it’s like to play volleyball in the Midwest.
“[Playing in] Illinois in high school was a really cool and positive thing,” McCarthy said. “But at Ball State, we were looked at as not the most popular sport on campus. It was definitely a different vibe in Indiana versus Illinois.”
Men’s volleyball is also much less popular than other sports at the collegiate level. While 351 colleges offer Division I basketball and 130 offer D-I football, there are only 23 D-I and 25 D-II men’s volleyball programs.
Only 12 NCAA championship winners have been from universities outside of California since the annual tournament began in 1970. Six of these 12 championship wins have come from the Midwest, including two from Loyola.
Despite the gender-based stereotypes and challenges to accessing the sport in the Midwest, Voight said he’s proud to start his collegiate career in the region.
“I wanted to stay close to home so that [my family] could come to all the games,” Yentz said. “But on top of it being close, this program has a great history. I really like the coaches, [getting to] stay in the Midwest to help build the popularity for men’s volleyball and representing where I’m from.”
The men’s volleyball team is the only Loyola team that doesn’t compete in the Missouri Valley Conference. Instead, they face off against teams in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA).
While the Ramblers have five Midwestern natives on their roster, the other MIVA teams average around 10 players from the region on their rosters.
Among these teams are Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, which has seven Midwestern players on its roster, and Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, which has a MIVA high 16 players from the Midwest.
Loyola is set to battle both teams on the road this week, facing Quincy Feb. 13 and Lindenwood Feb. 15.