CHICAGO — Cody Caldwell is not an excitable kind of guy.
“Best feeling of my life,” the Loyola junior outside hitter said, barely changing his facial expression.
That was kind of the norm for his team. When the serve of Stanford’s Scott Sakaida sailed past the far baseline, handing the Ramblers a 25-17, 19-25, 25-19, 25-15 NCAA national-championship victory, there was no dog pile.
No, as the home crowd went nuts inside a sold-out Gentile Arena, celebrating the school’s first national title in 51 years, the Ramblers simply joined together, jumped up and down, and then went to shake hands.
“This is a great way to go out, right? We haven’t lost since January,” senior libero Peter Jasaitis said with a big smile. “I’m just so thankful that everyone in our team bought into our system. We’re going to go back into the locker room and I’ve watched senior after senior after senior leave some advice. I’ve got no advice for these guys. I’m just going to thank them.”
They all can give thanks for one of the more remarkable runs in NCAA history, from the time Loyola lost in last year’s national semifinals to a year later when the Ramblers capped a title run by winning their last 27 matches.
Loyola (29-1) opened its season back in January by first avenging that NCAA loss to the team that eventually won it all in 2013, UC Irvine. And then the Ramblers beat BYU before falling at home to USC on Jan. 4. But that was it. Since then, Loyola was ranked No. 1 for most of the season, save the last poll when it fell to No. 2.
As if that mattered when the Ramblers and their 34-year-old coach, Shane Davis, hoisted the NCAA trophy Saturday night becoming the first Midwest team to win since Ohio State did in 2011 and the first-ever from the Central time zone. It also is Loyola's second NCAA title ever, the first won by the Ramblers' 1963 men's basketball team.
“I feel wonderful. A couple of years ago I questioned whether I wanted to continue coaching, if I was any good at it, if I was great at it,” said Davis, a former player himself who is finishing his 10th year in a job for which he once was paid just a small stipend.
“Last year was a big year for me professionally. It was time to get the program to the next level and if I didn’t get it there last year I needed to question the way I was doing things, and we made it. It was OK, I’m enjoying this.
“And this year there was less pressure put on myself. I had some more life balance and obviously winning helped, but I approached things a little different.”
“We trust in Shane and he’s done wonders for this program,” Jasaitis said, “and it showed tonight.”
It truly did. Loyola took it right to Stanford, which got an at-large bid into the field of six. The Cardinal finished a pretty tough 11 days, losing at BYU in the MPSF final last Saturday and then beating Erskine here Tuesday night in a play-in match before ousting BYU in the semifinals on Thursday.
But that wasn’t like playing Loyola at Loyola.
“It was pretty loud,” Stanford coach John Kosty admitted. “We had opportunities to silence the crowd and they wouldn’t stay quiet.”
After Loyola won the first set fairly easily, Stanford rallied to win the second set and seemingly was back in it. But it had no answers in the third set.
“After the second set they heated up on their serving and got us a couple of times down the line and went short on our passers and we weren’t just scoring any points on our side. We were serving a little easier than normal,” Davis said.
“We told them going into set three to just keep doing what we were doing and that those aces weren’t going to come again and that we were going to score better. It wasn’t higher-level thinking, just some minor adjustments.”
Davis was right, and then in the fourth the rout was on.
“We ran into a hot and hot-serving team tonight,” said Kosty, who took the Cardinal to the 2010 title the last time it was at Stanford, where the tournament happens to be again next year. “They kept us off balance all night long.”
For the match, Loyola hit .452 and Stanford .252. Loyola only had three aces and 12 errors, but served tough and made life tough for the Cardinal.
“We struggled to get into system and when you do that that it’s tough to get into rhythm against a good serving team like Loyola Chicago,” said Kosty, whose team had five aces but 14 errors.
Caldwell, named the tournament MVP, led with 20 kills in 32 swings and hit .562. The star of the team, sophomore outside Thomas Jaeschke, the MIVA MVP, didn’t have a kill in the first set and finished with 12 hitting .333 and had a team-high 10 digs
“Cody’s really good early on. He was having success against [Stanford’s Eric] Mochalski,” Davis said, “and Mochalski really didn’t have an answer for him. So why change anything? So went heavy to Cody and then utilized Thomas after set one. And the guys were passing nails and the tips and rolls were going our way.”
Senior right side Joe Smalzer also had 12 kills and hit .348. He and Jaeschke had eight digs apiece.
Brian Cook led Stanford (24-9) with 15 kills, and Steven Irvin added 10. They’re both California guys, like some of the Loyola players, including Caldwell.
He’s from Newport Beach, California, and was considered the top player in the country when he was recruited. Jasaitis hails from Manhattan Beach.
“The reason I came here was because of the team and coaches,” Caldwell said.
“Shane is a good, solid recruiter and this is a great institution,” Kosty said. “I think there are a lot of quality institutions playing men’s volleyball. I’m not shocked when West Coast guys go to the Midwest or East or Midwest and East guys come to the West Coast. I think the balance is great and I can only see these championships getting better with a higher caliber through and through.”
“Cody’s very laid back,” Davis said. “And I’m not a very exciting guy and it kind of trickles down to the team in times like tonight or in big matches. I’m kind of like the calm within the storm.
Smalzer, like Jaeschke is from the Chicago area.
“I think we needed that Cali swagger,” Smalzer said. “They’ve been an integral part of growing us as a team and that experience they get from playing year-round over there transferred to us here.”
Smalzer, now 215 pounds but a paltry 150 when he got to Loyola, said he first became aware of Loyola volleyball when he was a sophomore in high school.
“I live about an hour away and it was close and the coaching staff really clicked and the players really clicked and back then I was recruited as a setter,” Smalzer said.
“Then I redshirted and grew.”
Just like the program.
“This is an awesome ending.”