Loyola's Success Proof of Men's Volleyball Growth in Midwest

The Ramblers have emerged into the national scene by luring West Coast and local talent.

Peter Jasaitis, the Loyola libero from Manhattan Beach, California, makes a diving save in Thursday's semifinal win over Penn State.
Ed Chan
Peter Jasaitis, the Loyola libero from Manhattan Beach, California, makes a diving save in Thursday's semifinal win over Penn State.

CHICAGO — OK, it’s not quite like in Ghostbusters, with “human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria,” but a kid from Manhattan Beach choosing to play volleyball at Loyola of Chicago? After visiting there in the dead of winter?

Or a Midwest school not only being the No. 1 seed, but playing on its home court for the NCAA men’s volleyball title?

And vice-versa, with kids from this part of the world leaving for the West Coast?

The prime example is Peter Jasaitis, Loyola's senior libero.

“At first I thought he should have stayed on the West Coast because he’s a Manhattan Beach kid and loves the weather,” said Stanford senior outside hitter Steven Irvin, who just happened to be Jasaitis’s high school and club teammate.

“But in the last couple of years Loyola of Chicago’s team has been going up and up, so I think he made the good decision.”

And then you’ve got Stanford’s Conrad Kaminski, a sophomore middle from New Berlin, Wisconsin.

“I think it’s good for the sport in general,” Irvin said, “because it’s expanding and it’s always fun to have people brining a different aspect that we’re not used to.”

So it goes for Saturday night’s NCAA championship match, which will be held in Loyola’s sold-out 4,963-seat Gentile Arena as the sport of men’s volleyball hopes to take a huge leap forward in the eyes of the sporting world and an ESPNU audience.

“This is the brand and type of volleyball that’s out there all around the country,” Stanford coach John Kosty said.

“It’s great that Loyola of Chicago has done a great job of showcasing the talent that we have. It’s great that we’re on ESPN on Saturday. We’re going to put on a great match for the fans and a lot of non fans.

“We’re going to convert a lot of people on Saturday.”

Loyola (28-1), champion of the MIVA, is riding a 26-match winning streak after getting past Penn State in five sets late Thursday night.

“It’s really cool. Everyone is rallying around men’s volleyball,” Jasaitis said. “You wouldn’t expect it. But complete strangers are coming up to us and saying, ‘Great job.’ People are fired up for men’s volleyball.”

What’s more, Jasaitis said the crowd support Thursday was one of the biggest thrills of his life.

“Yesterday, coming out of timeouts and stuff when everyone was into it, that’s something that will never be duplicated,” Jasaitis said. “I mean maybe tomorrow, but later in my life there will never be a feeling like that. Our home fans were just unbelievable. The Chicago-area fans, unbelievable.

“I would have never expected that gnarly an atmosphere in all my life. Coming here I never would have expected that. That was pretty cool.”

Stanford (24-8), an at-large invitee from the MPSF, won the first play-in game in history by beating Erskine on Tuesday night. Then the Cardinal avenged three previous losses this season to league rival BYU by taking a five-set victory in the first match Thursday. The title match will be the first meeting between the schools since 2012 and comes after both semifinals went to five for the first time in history.

It all adds up to what Loyola hopes will be a tremendous showcase not only for its team but also its university, nestled just north of downtown on the shore of Lake Michigan.

“Our men’s volleyball student-athletes were the most engaged on campus and had done a number of things that I hoped the other sports could model after,” said Loyola athletic director Dr. M. Grace Calhoun, who has been here just more than three years but is actually leaving soon to become A.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

“They had managed to embrace the greater Loyola community. There were so many students, but also staff people that would come out to support them. Not just because they were great athletes but because they got to know them because they were on clubs together or lived in the residence halls together.

“They set the gold standard for what student life should be at Loyola.”

Accordingly, she believed Loyola could give the support the program needed to win a title, something the Ramblers haven’t done in 51 years. That was in 1963, when the men’s basketball team won the only NCAA crown in school history. Calhoun is quick to point out Loyola remains the only Illinois college to win an NCAA Division I basketball crown.

“You can’t under-play the enormity of being in the [volleyball] final. I talked about it at the [AVCA] banquet that it’s not only the first national championship hosted by Loyola, but it’s the first championship hosted by the city of Chicago,” Calhoun said.

“It really is a first in so many ways and the first year it expanded to six teams. To be the best in your sport, whatever your sport is, on the national level, is such a difficult thing to do. To get that close and have a chance to be the best men’s volleyball team in the country is so amazingly special.”

And that’s not lost on Stanford’s Kosty, who took his team to the 2010 NCAA title on the Cardinal’s home floor, the last time that happened.

“It’s really exciting,” Kosty said. “There are so many boys playing volleyball at a high level in this country. I’m encouraged that across the country programs are just getting better and better. Schools are putting more resources into their programs. And the more resources they have the better they recruit and bring more talent to their campuses. And the student bodies are behind us, too. It’s a fun, exciting sport. I see a huge amount of growth potential for us. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next 10 years bring for us as more and more Division II and Division I programs are added.”

Loyola’s Jasaitis, the SoCal convert, had an interesting perspective.

“I hope this puts us on the map with the younger kids, kids coming up through club who start looking at our school at 13, 14 years old, not just looking at the historical, dominant West Coast teams,” said Jasaitis, who also considered Pepperdine and NYU.

Senior right side Joe Smazler, who is from Chicago, is obviously Loyola proud.

“I know there are a lot of things we want to do as an athletic department,” Smalzer said. “Hopefully this will help us get there.”

Loyola’s coach, Shane Davis, played there, but when he took over the Ramblers program 11 years ago, it was hardly a team that was challenging for a national title, so much as be the host for one.

“When I played here it was just Midwest guys. The coaches took Midwest guys who were great athletes and tried to teach them how to play volleyball,” Davis said. “So we didn’t have a ton of experience and when it came down to crunch time or finesse plays or consistency, we just didn’t have it. Now we’re getting so many guys into the program whose dads played volleyball and whose moms played volleyball.”

Loyola won the conference in 2005 and 2006 but it took until last year to finally get to a final four. Now the Ramblers have taken the next step, but before that Davis said it was a recruit three years ago that finally put the Ramblers over the top. That was when junior outside Cody Caldwell left Newport Beach, California, for Chicago.

“A West Coast kid, No. 1 kid in the country coming out of high school, my big thing was we had to get this kid on campus. How do we get this kid on campus? He was 18-open MVP, 16-open MVP. He was a name everyone knew. We got him on campus, showed him what we had to offer, hoped we had a shot at him. It came down to us and a couple of schools and it came down to picking us late, and once we got him, everyone was talking and wondering what Loyola had to offer. Then the dominoes starting falling.”

Now the dominoes fall to center court Saturday night on national television with the men’s volleyball world watching.

“They went through the process we did,” Kosty said. “They had to decide if they wanted to try to win a national championship in front of their home crowd.”

They both do, Loyola and hopeful spoiler Stanford, and if Thursday’s results were any indication, it ought to be a heck of a night.

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