CHICAGO, Ill. -- Loyola Chicago coach Shane Davis was wandering through O’Hare International Airport at just the right time.
And now the Ramblers are in the title game of the NCAA NC Men’s Volleyball Championship for the first time in school history.
The tale goes back a couple of years when Thomas Jaeschke, a high school volleyball recruit from Wheaton, Illinois, was headed to Penn State as a student-athlete. Then his mom saw Davis at the airport, not knowing until they talked that Davis was volleyball coach at Loyola Chicago.They talked. An official recruiting visit happened. Jaeschke wound up going to Loyola because it’s much closer to the western Chicago suburb of Wheaton than State College, Pennsylvania, certainly is.
Thursday night at the national championship semifinals, Jaeschke had a career-high 24 kills and Loyola defeated Penn State 25-20, 22-25, 25-21, 18-25, 15-11.
“He broke my heart again tonight,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
The Ramblers (28-1) will face Stanford in the national championship match Saturday night at Loyola’s Gentile Arena, which was packed with more than 4,000 Rambler fans Thursday. Loyola has won 26 consecutive matches.
Loyola has never won a national championship in men‘s volleyball, something that is not lost on Jaeschke.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” he said.
Jaeschke was dominant against the Nittany Lions. His 24 kills were six more than anybody else on the court. He had 13 kills in the first two sets of the match.
“I just jumped,” he said. “That’s all I do.”
It gets a little bit more technical than that, but Jaeschke’s comment illustrates well his commitment to the team. He is not quick to take any credit. He instead wants to compliment his teammates for a memorable Loyola season that has included just one loss to Southern California in the first week of the season. From the Rambler starters to every player in practice, Jaeschke is appreciative of his teammates.
“I just think it’s great for everybody on the team,” Jaeschke said. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. Everyone works so hard.”
“That’s the way he is,“ Davis said. “He’s always giving credit to everyone else.”
Jaeschke has combined with setter Peter Hutz to form a strong offensive combination. Hutz had 60 assists against Penn State. Cody Caldwell, another piece of the Ramblers offense, added 15 kills and Nick Olson had 12.
“We’ve been playing together now for two full years,” Jaeschke said. “I just kind of give it all to that. Playing with him constantly, I just know where the ball is going to be. He puts it there every time.”
Jaeschke averages more than 3.7 kills per set and he was named the 2014 Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association Player of the Year.
“He’s a great player and he does a great job for us,” Davis said. “He gets us out of a lot of tough situations. He’s a great asset for us.”
Jaeschke’s career night came in a match when he faced one of his best friends, Matt Callaway, a redshirted freshman at Penn State. They both grew up in Wheaton and went to the same high school, Wheaton Warrensville South.
“It’s weird. It’s always weird playing against him,” Jaeschke said.
The Nittany Lions also have three other players from suburban Chicago: Zack Parik and Spencer Sauter of Woodridge, and Joey Farrell of Lombard.
“Callaway’s my best friend,” Jaeschke said. “I’m super cool with all of them.”
Jaeschke would have been there alongside them if not for that chance meeting at Chicago O’Hare coming back from a club volleyball tournament. His mother saw Davis and thought he was a player.
“I randomly just kind of bumped into her and she said, ‘Hey, do you play volleyball?’ ” Davis said.
“No, I’m actually a coach,” he said.
After Jaeschke visited the school, everything changed.
“I just loved it,” he said. “My parents haven’t missed a home match. I had 15 family members here tonight. It’s been great.”
And there were no bad feelings.
“I loved Penn State,” he said.