The Loyola men’s volleyball team has kicked off its 2021 season quite differently than its 2020 campaign. Not only are the Ramblers playing in Alfie Norville Practice Facility with no fans instead of their usual Gentile Arena, but they’ve also started with a 4-0 record compared to last year’s 1-3.
However, one of the most noticeable changes to the Ramblers this year comes from their lineup. The team brings in 10 first-years, its largest incoming class in program history.
First-year middle blocker Jimmy Meinhart said he’s enjoyed having such a large group because it’s given the players more people their age with whom to relate.
“I knew a bunch of the guys already coming in, so I kind of had built-in friends that were already on the team with me,” he said. “It’s definitely been kind of a joy, it made the transition easier for us as we’re a really tight-knit group of freshmen.”
As one of the later first-years to commit to Loyola, Meinhart said he already knew coming in he would be joining a bigger group of new players. Four first-years, including Meinhart, hail from within Illinois, with three others arriving from California. The remaining three come from Missouri, Wisconsin and England.
Meinhart said he was excited to play on the team because many players already knew each other from club volleyball tournaments in Illinois or national programs such as USA Volleyball.
“This time we’re not competitors, this time we’re teammates, so that’s pretty nice,” Meinhart, 19, said.
Meinhart said he thinks his class’s biggest strength is the players’ competitiveness and high energy level, which he thinks has made everyone on the team better.
Senior setter Garrett Zolg said it’s nice to have so many younger teammates because they bring more energy and excitement to the team. As one of only two seniors, he said his job is to be a good, consistent leader for the new players — something he’s trying to work on this season.
“It’s not easy, for sure,” Zolg, 22, said. “But I try to compete super hard and have those guys try to follow after me and show them the way.”
Head coach Mark Hulse said bringing in a large group of new members has changed the overall culture of the team for the better. He said there were things the team wanted to improve on culturally as a group and, with almost half the team made up of new members, he said it was a good moment for change.
“It was a good time to kind of look inwardly and say, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity again just because things are different,’” he said. “Change is happening just by virtue of the roster size, it was the perfect opportunity to progress.”
Hulse said he agreed with Zolg about the older players stepping into a stronger leadership role this year. He said having such a large incoming class has put the pressure on them to be good examples since so many young players will be paying attention.
The 10 first-years aren’t the only players stepping into their first full season, however. The team also welcomes back eight sophomores after their first year on the team was cut short due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This leaves only four upperclassmen on Hulse’s 2021 roster.
The Ramblers began their season with four wins in the span of eight days, and Hulse said it was nice to see a lot of players get to play their first college games and score their first points.
“Really really promising, the first week,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but nobody’s ever there. You’re always trying to get better so we’re just trying to keep our trajectory pointed as steeply north as it could possibly be.”
As far as standout players go, Hulse said it’s still too early for him to tell and it will be up to the players to keep working hard. He said Meinhart was one player who had a promising start to the season, but even others who are a bit behind can hopefully keep progressing.
“We all kind of start in different places,” Hulse said. “Some guys are a little bit more ready right away, but some guys maybe have a higher ceiling.”
The Ramblers are slated to begin Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) play when they travel to play Quincy University Feb. 5. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m.