As the Loyola men’s volleyball team prepares to move into conference this weekend, it needs to adapt to the challenges the team faced this season that resulted in a disappointing 3-7 non-conference record.
After Loyola won its first match, the team lost five straight matches, four of which were to top-15 teams. That losing streak was followed by two victories for the Ramblers against unranked teams Jan. 24 and 25, but Loyola was next swept by both No. 11 George Mason Jan. 31 and unranked Barton University Feb. 1, bringing its non-conference record to 3-7.
All told, the Ramblers have gone 0-5 against top-15 teams this season after going 2-3 against ranked teams in non-conference play last year. But Loyola head coach Mark Hulse said there are positives to having a tough schedule, even though it provided the team with a challenge.
“Had we scheduled differently, we might have gotten some positive feedback,” Hulse said. “But us getting a taste of the reality that we have to be really sharp [and] really consistent … was a really good lesson for us.”
Loyola started the season ranked No. 11 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, but dropped out of the top 15 following the Jan. 25 game against Urbana.
The Ramblers had a successful Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) run in 2019, winning 12 matches and losing only three times. All three losses were to Lewis University — twice in regular-season play and once in the MIVA tournament championship.
Loyola lost some key pieces after last season, though. Four 2019 All-MIVA nominees — outside hitters Collin Mahan and Will Tischler, middle blocker Paul Narup and libero Avery Aylsworth — graduated, leaving holes to fill in the rotation.
Meanwhile, junior setter Garrett Zolg has been out the entire season for an undisclosed reason. Zolg was an integral part of the team’s success last year, averaging 10.87 assists, 1.75 digs and .27 aces per set.
So far this season, Loyola is averaging 11.5 kills per set compared to their opponents’ average of 12.9. At this point last year, the Ramblers averaged 14.1 kills per set while their non-conference opponents averaged 10.6.
Despite the disappointing non-conference record, senior setter Ian Cowen said he’s still confident in the team’s ability to be successful in MIVA play this season.
“It’s interesting because we know we’re going to play [MIVA] teams twice,” Cowen said. “We get used to their types of playing — their offense, their defense, what they like to do and the characteristics of their team. We kind of know going into those games what to expect.”
Although the team has an idea of what to expect during MIVA matchups, there are some matches that will be challenging. One of those difficult matchups will be against No. 6 Lewis because of the rivalry between the teams, according to junior outside hitter Devin Joslyn.
“They have a couple of older guys who have proven themselves and they went far in the [NCAA] tournament last year,” Joslyn said. “It’s tough when we go there. There’s that rivalry between us because we’re so close.”
Meanwhile, Hulse said he has his eyes set on their first matchup in MIVA play against No. 11 Purdue University Fort Wayne Feb. 8.
“As coaches, our concern is always the next game,” Hulse said. “[Purdue Fort Wayne] is a really good team and their senior Pelegrin Vargas has been an awesome player in our league for a few years now. The guys around him have done a really nice job around him as well.”
The Ramblers will face Purdue Fort Wayne Feb. 8 at Gentile Arena. First serve is set for 7 p.m. CST.