CHICAGO — Homecourt advantage: Loyola.
Winner of their only meeting this season: Loyola.
Team that has never won it all: Loyola.
Opponent making its 16th consecutive appearance and 29th overall in the NCAA final four: Penn State.
That same Penn State that has two championships to its credit, in 1994 and 2008.
Teams that lost in last year’s semifinals: Both of them
All of which might mean everything or nothing when Penn State and Loyola face off Thursday night with a berth in the national-championship match on the line.
“I think we match up really well with Penn State,” Loyola coach Shane Davis said. “We should feel really good about going into tomorrow night’s match.
“They serve well, we have great serve receive, and I think we can stay in system and cause them a lot of problems.”
That was the case last March 21 when the Nittany Lions came to this same Gentile Arena and Loyola walked away with a 3-1 victory.
“I’m excited,” said Loyola junior outside hitter Cody Caldwell, “We did a good job in March of taking care of this team and we know how to prepare for matches really well. We just need to show up to play.”
Penn State, the No. 5 seed in the six-team field and champion of the EIVA, improved to 25-6 on Tuesday night by winning a four-set play-in match over Lewis, Loyola’s MIVA rival.
“I thought Lewis looked a little tired by the end of the match,” Loyola’s Davis offered. “It could have been their schedule and who they’ve been playing lately. But I was kind of surprised to see Penn State win in four against Lewis.”
Loyola, riding a 25-match winning streak, shouldn’t be tired and will get the boost of what is expected to be a sold-out Gentile Arena. The Ramblers are 27-1 and haven’t lost since falling at home to USC back on Jan. 4. They’ve been off since beating Lewis on Saturday night for the MIVA title.
Whereas Penn State is an annual fixture at this event, Loyola broke through for the first time last year, losing to eventual-champion UC Irvine in three, but a close three: 26-24, 25-18, 29-27.
It wasn’t lost on the Ramblers even then that they had a chance to play on their home floor a year later.
“It was a pride thing. We knew were going to be hosting at the end of the year and made it a focus,” said sophomore outside Thomas Jaeschke, the MIVA player of the year and AVCA All-American. “We went into the gym every day and worked hard to make sure we achieved that goal.”
Added Caldwell, “Our No.1 goal was to make sure we were in this tournament … These next two games mean more to us than the whole season.”
Penn State has similar feelings as it plays its fourth match in eight days. Coach Mark Pavlik, an assistant on that ’94 title team and head coach in 2008, said this team is extremely poised and competitive.
“We can’t lose,” PSU junior libero Connor Curry said. “If you do the season’s over. I think we’re taking every match with an attitude that it could be our last. That’s our main focus right now.”
“We’re coming in feeling good about the way we do things,” Pavlik said. “It’s going to be really interesting on Thursday night to see who believes in their physicality throughout the entire match.”
In the case of the Nittany Lions, that will include the talented Russell brothers, Aaron and Peter, Nick Goodell, and big Matt Sierfert, who at 6’9” looks as much like an NBA power forward as a volleyball player.
“We’re playing well,” Siefert said. “The nice thing about the tournament is everyone is playing their best volleyball of the season and that’s where we want to be.”
So who has the advantage? Pavlik said perhaps the biggest key is who plays well after getting to 20 points in the 25-point matches, something the Nittany Lions didn’t do here last March 21.
“The fact that they beat us earlier in the year gave us a lot of motivation,” Aaron Russell said, acknowledging the homecourt advantage for Loyola.
“Both teams are going to come out firing and it’s going to be an exciting match.”