CHICAGO -- Loyola Chicago‘s players were so excited about winning their first national championship Saturday night that they grabbed the NCAA championship trophy minutes after they had finished off their historic win against Stanford.
Peter Jasaitis, the team’s senior libero, held it over his head as his teammates pointed their index fingers upward and screamed in delight.
Trouble is, the championship trophy presentation hadn’t happened yet.But you’ll have to forgive the Ramblers for their immediate championship enthusiasm. They had never won a national title before.
They don’t know the protocol.
In the midst of that celebration was tournament most outstanding player Cody Caldwell, a junior outside hitter for Loyola.
“I guess that’s a home court advantage, you know?” Caldwell said, laughing later. “We had that access.”
Caldwell, who had a match-best 20 kills and a match-high 10 digs in the 25-17, 19-25, 25-19, 25-15 victory, is from Newport Beach, Calif., of all places. Newport Beach to Chicago? That’s a trip of more than 2,000 miles. And a temperature difference of what probably seems like 2,000 degrees when it’s the middle of winter and sub-freezing winds are howling from Lake Michigan.
Caldwell made his recruiting trip to Loyola’s lake-front campus more than three years ago in the fall. It was rainy, gray and cool. Typical weather for the Windy City.
“It was cold. I did not like that,” he said.
But somehow Loyola coach Shane Davis persuaded Caldwell to come to Chicago. The successful recruitment of Caldwell, Davis said earlier this week, was a key point in the growth of Loyola’s program. Caldwell was one of the most highly recruited high school and club players in the nation.
“What I did like were the players and the coaching staff. I fit in real well,” Caldwell said. “The coaches were awesome. I loved their idea, their philosophy, the program they had going.”
So Caldwell made the trip to Chicago without a winter coat and an optimistic outlook. A winter coat is a part of his closet now.
Saturday, with his mom, dad, girlfriend and other family members in the stands, he helped the Ramblers win a championship in a historic fashion. Loyola’s men’s volleyball team had never even played in the national title game, let alone win it. The school’s only previous national championship was won by the men’s basketball team in 1963.
By the end of the night at Gentile Arena, as a sellout crowd of 4,485 spectators watched happily, Caldwell was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates and classmates. The west coast kid had helped a Midwestern team knock off a west coast giant, Stanford, a two-time national champ which will host the national tournament in 2015.
“This means a lot. Best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Caldwell said. “I really think that we are the team that deserves this the most.
From top to bottom, I think we are the most hardest working team, we’re the closest team and I think this means everything to all of us.
We made history tonight and it’s unbelievable.”
“He deserves it,” Davis said of Caldwell. “He’s made a tremendous transformation since freshman year to now. It’s just unbelievable, the hard work and the way he’s gotten better as a student-athlete here at Loyola. He deserves it. It’s his best year right now. It’s great.”
The win finished off a school-record 29-1 season for Loyola. The Ramblers won their past 27 matches.
“This is a great way to go out. I mean, we haven’t lost since January,” said Jasaitis, whose last collegiate game was Saturday.
After losing the first set 25-17, Stanford bounced back to take the second set, 25-19, and seemed to gathering momentum. But Caldwell and the Ramblers slammed the door. They won the next two sets 25-19 and 25-15.
Caldwell teamed up with Owen McAndrews for a block at the net early in the fourth set, and they both emerged from the play with a celebratory shout. Later in the set, Caldwell slammed a kill through the middle of Stanford’s defense as the crowd rose to its feet in anticipation of a magical Loyola night.
“They were just on fire,” said Stanford outside hitter Brian Cook, who was named to the all-tournament team.
“We had a difficult time stopping Cody Caldwell,” Stanford coach John Kosty said. “We knew Cody was going to be the X factor. He’s an excellent volleyball player.”
Caldwell had a career-high 24 kills earlier this season against Ball State, but he was at his best in the conference and national tournaments. He had a team-high 19 kills in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association final against Lewis and he had 15 kills in the Ramblers’ five-set victory against Penn State in the national semifinals on Thursday.
Caldwell went right to work against Stanford, totaling nine kills in just the first set. But he had plenty of help. Thomas Jaeschke, a sophomore who had a career-high 24 kills against Penn State, added 12 kills, as did senior Joe Smalzer. Jasaitis had six digs and four assists.
It was the teamwork that made Caldwell the most happy.
“It was a lot of fun and it was awesome to have that feeling, have the crowd chanting MVP, but it was way more fun just winning that game with all my teammates, celebrating with all my teammates,” Caldwell said.
“It meant way more to be with the team and just getting this championship felt way better.”