Loyola Chicago volleyball appears even stronger than 2014 champion team
It was going to be a banner day in any case.
But what the Loyola volleyball team did on the road last weekend ensured that Saturday afternoon's ceremony at Gentile Arena can celebrate not only last year's triumph but also this year's promise.
As Loyola unveils the banner to commemorate the second NCAA championship in school history -- joining the 1963 basketball team -- before the home opener against Harvard, the Ramblers clearly look capable of becoming just the third team in the last 28 seasons to win back-to-back Division I men's volleyball titles.
Opening the 2015 season in Palo Alto, Calif., the Ramblers racked up a 3-1 victory over preseason No. 6 Brigham Young and a 3-0 sweep of No. 10 Stanford. They were Loyola's first victories away from home over either school and vaulted the Ramblers past Pepperdine to the top spot in this week's national coaches' poll.
"There were big questions about who was going to replace our two (graduated) starters," Loyola coach Shane Davis said. "Going out West and playing against two premier programs and being able to control each match the way we did was a pretty good plus.
"We can be a lot better, but it gave us some good confidence."
Two freshmen, Jeff Jendryk (middle hitter playing outside) and Jake Selsky (libero), have moved into the starting lineup. Jendryk was named national freshman of the week for his play last Friday and Saturday.
"We have to make sure the new guys understand they haven't won anything yet," Davis said. "It's easy for them to come into a program and think they won the national championship."
Jendryk was in the stands at Loyola last May when the top-seeded Ramblers beat No. 5 seed Penn State 3-2 and No. 3 Stanford 3-1 for the national title.
"It made me mostly excited but a little nervous about being on the team this year," Jendryk said. "It's a big legacy to live up to."
Big is the operative word for Loyola. By the end of the season, Davis expects his starting rotation could have a Rambler Roadblock up front, with the 6-foot-10 Jendryk, 6-10 junior Nick Olson and 6-11 freshman Ricky Gevis.
"We're monsters," Davis said, apparently referring not only to the height.
Olson's development and the versatility of players like redshirt sophomore Owen McAndrews, at his third position (opposite) in two seasons, also will be key to Loyola's success.
"A year ago, I thought Olson was a little soft and behind schedule," Davis said. "When he came back this fall, he was an absolute animal compared to where he was, even at the end of last season."
Junior setter Peter Hutz, senior hitter Cody Caldwell, and junior outside Thomas Jaeschke are mainstays again.
Caldwell was the most valuable player of the NCAA tournament. Jaeschke, a first team All-America choice and Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association player of the year last season, likely will be in the 2016 U.S. Olympic team player pool.
With so much talent and the impressive start to the season, it would be easy for this group to get ahead of itself, especially after rolling into the last NCAA tournament with a 27-1 record and just 15 sets lost of 99 played. Local rival Lewis (ranked No. 5) likely will be the biggest challenge during this regular season.
Davis isn't worried about overconfidence for a program that had not qualified for the NCAA tournament until 2013. The men's tourney, which merges Division I and Division II, had just a four-team field until last season when it expanded to six.
"It's like last year," Davis said. "These guys never feel they are too good to work hard or too good for the team they are playing."
This article was written by Philip Hersh from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.