LOS ANGELES -- Loyola junior Peter Jasaitis knows that 50 years ago his school won its only NCAA championship, which was in men’s basketball.
Now his volleyball team has a chance to repeat the feat, which isn’t lost on his college classmates back in Chicago.
“I’ve actually had a lot of friends who have come up to me, now that we’ve made the final four, these are students at Loyola, and they say, ‘This school wins a championship every 50 years. It’s up to you guys and women’s softball.’ “
“We’ll try not to let them down,” he said.
It won’t be easy.
There are a lot of things the volleyball world might have expected, but not one of them before this season was Loyola making it to UCLA this week for the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship.
The Ramblers (22-8), who won the automatic bid that comes with winning the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title, take on defending national-champion UC Irvine (23-7) of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation on Thursday night. UCI got the lone at-large bid to the touranment.
For that matter, Loyola stood just 8-7 heading into a February 23 match against Ball State when things changed in a big way. Coach Shane Davis, who is a former player at Loyola, decided it was time to replace freshman setter Diego Rodriguez with another freshman, Peter Hutz. The 6’4” product of Whitefish Bay, Wis., made an immediate impact.
“That was our game of change,” said Davis, who is in his 10th year as head coach. “That was our turning moment as a program.”
Indeed. Loyola won that match in three sets and, after losing in five to Ohio State in the next match, reeled off nine victories in a row, including beating Ohio State in three on April 6.
Loyola is an interesting mix of players. While Hutz, who has 644 assists (10.56 per game) might be the best player ever from Whitefish Bay, it doesn’t hurt any that six of teammates, including Jasaitis, are from Southern California.
However, 6’8” junior Joe Smalzer, a product of Palos Height, Ill., leads Loyola in kills (419) and aces (74) and is third in blocks (66).
Thomas Jaeschke (336 kills, 55 blocks, 21 aces), a 6-6 outside hitter, is also from Illinois (the suburb of Wheaton), and so is Eric Daliege, a 6’7” senior middle blocker from Orland Park, Ill., who has 110 blocks and 150 kills.
Another player from Wisconsin, 6’10” freshman middle Nick Olson, is a product of New Berlin who has 140 kills and 92 blocks.
And then there’s Cody Caldwell, a 6’6” sophomore outside hitter from Newport Beach, Calif., who has 126 kills. Jaisaitis, a 6-foot libero, has 224 digs this season.
Combined, they represent a culmination of progress that has put Loyola into some lofty air.
“Ever since I took over I went from a part-time position to full time to a full staff to being very well supported by our administration financially as well as other things,” Davis said. “It’s been a long road and it’s great to finally be rewarded by winning with this great group of individuals.
“It’s been a long process but it’s been very hurried up the last few years with all the support and how hard these guys have been working and with the culture that we’ve created up to this point.”
Developing talent and also being able to recruit and sign players from California is no small thing, especially when you consider that schools like UCLA and Irvine have and have had plenty of Midwest and Northeast players on their rosters.
But, as Irvine coach David Kniffin said, “They received full funding five years ago. It’s similar to when we received full funding and four years later we were in the final four. When you back it up with full funding, the sky’s the limit. From the outside looking in, Loyola is a professional program with a professional coach leading it.”
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik agreed.
“The Chicagoland area is a hotbed for volleyball and Loyola takes it seriously,” Pavlik said. “They’re drawing in kids from all over, East Coast kids, West Coast kids, the Chicagoland-area kids, and Midwest kids. Shane is doing a great job coaching and you’re going to hear a lot more from that program over the next couple of years.”
Loyola made a California swing to open the season and pretty much got waxed, losing to Long Beach State in three, Cal Baptist in four and host UC Santa Barbara in three.
The Ramblers were plagued by sickness during that swing, but “We took away from it that we could deal with adversity,” Davis said.
Added Jasaitis, “We learned it’s not scary.
“You think of these California teams and it’s like, oh these are the big guys and they’re from the MPSF and they get two teams in the tournament every year. But going out there, even though we had a rough time with the sickness and everything, especially for some of the young guys and for some of the guys who hadn’t traveled yet, we learned that it’s not scary.
“And we learned what we needed to get to be able to compete with them at the end of the year and we think we’re in a pretty good spot now.”
Loyola made it here by knocking off defending MIVA-champion Lewis in five sets, 15-7 in the fifth after losing 23-25, winning 25-23, losing by the almost unheard of score of 25-10, and winning 25-22.
Most observers think that UCI, which has won three of the last six NCAA titles, will overpower Loyola, but that might not be the point.
Next year, Loyola is the host team for this event. A year under their belts, who knows, they can forget California: The Ramblers, so young this year, could be playing at home, a place that Davis sells well when he recruits.
He said he tells prospective athletes, “Loyola University is a high academic school, it’s in Chicago, right off the north side of downtown. We’re on the lake. We kind of call it the Midwest Pepperdine.
“It’s not quite Malibu, but it’s pretty close.”
He said that with a straight face.
“And Loyola doesn’t have a football team,” Davis continued. “So I like to call the Loyola men’s volleyball team the Loyola football team in a sense. We’re the BCS team around Loyola. Kids are noticed around campus, everybody knows who they are. When you get the big recruits in everybody knows who they are. And I think that’s a big selling point for us.”
And that happens more than once every 50 years.