CHICAGO -- Loyola Chicago will make history as soon as they step onto the home court Thursday night.
The Ramblers are hosting the National Collegiate Men‘s Volleyball Championship for the first time.They are attempting to win the school’s first national title in volleyball and just the second national championship in any sport.
One of the largest poster-sized photographs hanging on a wall at the Gentile Arena is one of the NCAA national champion 1963 basketball team.
“I think it’s going to be an electric atmosphere,” Loyola coach Shane Davis said, himself a former star player for the school’s volleyball team and an All-American in 2003. “The volleyball crowd here in Chicago can be a rowdy bunch, so I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Not only is the national tournament coming to Loyola for the first time, but it has never previously been held anywhere in Illinois.
Sellout crowds are expected for Thursday’s semifinal round and Saturday’s championship game.
Loyola (27-1) will face Penn State (25-6) in the semifinals at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, preceded by the other semifinal match at 7 p.m. between rivals BYU (21-8) and Stanford (23-8). Penn State defeated Lewis in Tuesday‘s play-in game and Stanford defeated Erskine.
Loyola enters the tournament in a highly regarded fashion. The Ramblers, who made the final four field for the first time in 2013, are the No. 1 seed. They defeated their semifinal-round opponent, Penn State, earlier this season 3-1 and disposed of 2013 national runner-up BYU in three straight sets. They’ve won 25 consecutive matches and the only blemish in a 27-1 season was a loss to Southern Cal on Jan. 4.
“When we played them here, they didn’t back down,” BYU coach Chris McGown said. “We had some leads in every set and kind of were in control. And during those battles, they just stayed focused, and they made the plays and we didn’t.
“I was really impressed with the composure they had and just the confidence they had.”
Loyola is attempting to be the first host to win the national title since Stanford pulled it off in 2010. The Cardinal defeated Penn State in straight sets to win that national championship.
“I knew their mental state, I knew their leadership qualities,” Stanford coach John Kosty said about his 2010 team. “But I can’t say that about Loyola. I don’t know. I don’t know what goes on in their locker room. I know in 2010 it was their (Stanford’s) choice to host, meaning do we want to bid for this, and it was an overwhelming yes. We had incredible senior leadership at that time, too, with a few first team All-Americans. For us, it was a situation where we embraced that.”
The Ramblers similarly embraced the chance to host in 2014. Davis knew that this year’s team would be a strong one and the club responded with a school-record 27 wins.
“I knew we were going to be really good this year. If there was any time for us to put in a bid, it was going to be this year,” Davis said.
And if there’s one thing the Ramblers wanted to avoid, it was not making the final four in a year when they were hosting the tournament.
“Our No. 1 goal was to make sure we were in this tournament,” junior outside hitter Cody Caldwell said. “It would have been the opposite side of the spectrum if we were here just watching all these teams.
It’s great to just be here.”
“It’s a little pride thing. We knew we were going to be hosting at the end of the year so we wanted to make sure that we were going to be here,” said sophomore middle hitter Nick Olson, who has a team-best 108 blocks. “We made it a focus to be here at the end. We were down at the gym every day to make sure we met that goal.”
Only five weeks have passed since Penn State visited Loyola and lost 3-1. The Nittany Lions won’t go quietly, especially with members of the 1994 national championship team expected to be in the stands.
“We know them, they know us. It’ll be interesting to see who believes in their physicality the whole match,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
“I know both teams are going to come out firing,” Penn State outside hitter Aaron Russell said, who had a match-high 20 kills Tuesday against Lewis.
Loyola has dominated five of its last seven matches, winning each of the five in straight sets. It defeated Lewis 3-1 in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) final.
“The biggest thing for me is just the consistency and the level of play that they’ve kind of had the entire season,” Davis said. “I think the depth is another thing, their ability to keep the high level of play at No. 2 or even No. 3 spots in some cases.”
If the Loyola-Penn State isn’t entertaining enough, the Stanford-BYU match will be a battle. No. 2-seeded BYU has already defeated Stanford three times and the Stanford players are using that for motivation.
“I’m just excited for the opportunity,” senior outside hitter and two-time All-American Brian Cook said. “I think it’s hard to beat a team four times in one season than the opposite way. They’ve got a lot cut out for them and I think we’re in a good spot.”
“I think we understand the gravity of the situation,” Stanford sophomore outside hitter James Shaw said. “We’ve got a bunch of senior leaders who want this to be their legacy. The rest of the team understands that.”
Thursday’s match will mark the second meeting between the teams in five days. BYU defeated Stanford in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title game this past Saturday. A Feb. 15 battle between the two teams went to five sets.