By Kristen Keller for VolleyballMag.com
CHICAGO — As seventh-ranked Loyola readies for its Thursday match again MPSF powerhouse UCLA, the Ramblers are enjoying the program’s winning ways.
After capturing back-to-back NCAA men’s Division I-II volleyball championships in 2014 and 2015, coach Shane Davis left to take over the women’s program at nearby Northwestern.
But in 2016, under new coach Mark Hulse, the program failed to make the NCAA Tournament despite going 20-4. For that matter, it happened again in 2017, when the Ramblers finished 16-12. And last year, they finished 23-7 and lost out on the NCAA bid after getting swept by Ohio State in the MIVA Tournament title match.
But now in Hulse’s fourth season, it appears Loyola can get back into the national-title hunt.
“It’s been a process, no doubt,” Hulse said. “I think we kind of found how we want to play and who we are. It’s starting to make sense.”
A key has been a tough schedule. So far this season, Loyola (6-2) has basically played at least one ranked team each week.
No. 4 UC Irvine came to Gentile Arena first during a five-set match that went to the Anteaters. No. 5 Pepperdine and UC San Diego also made the trip to Chicago, with the Ramblers winning both times.
They then made the trip last week to California, sweeping then-No. 11 CSUN before falling in four at then No. 10 UC Santa Barbara. After facing UCLA, the Ramblers play host to Penn State on Saturday.
“We are just trying to keep it on our side of the net and get better every day,” senior middle blocker Paul Narup said. “UCLA is going to be a tough one, and Penn State is a historically good program. We just focus on the next day, the next practice and the next game.”
Loyola opens MIVA play next Friday at Quincy.
“Our conference has been brutal the past couple of years,” Hulse said. “The level of competition the past seven or eight years in the conference has gone up dramatically. You have to play some of the best teams in the country early to prepare yourself for the grind that our league has become.”
Loyola went into this season without one of the best players in program history after four-time All-American middle Jeff Jendryk graduated. He was one of four seniors on the 2018 team.
“I think all of us were waiting to see how big of a difference it was going to be,” Hulse said. “I think it’s cool that we are a better team this year. We got seven guys that on any given night are scoring a ton of points. We are so much more diversified and unified this year.”
Just as Hulse feels the unity amongst the team, the players feel the same.
“This year has probably been one of the most unified teams I’ve been on,” said senior middle blocker Paul Narup. “Everyone is playing for each other, I don’t think anyone is playing for themselves. That really helps us succeed out there.”
Balance has been a key. Senior outside Collin Mahan leads with 90 kills (3.21/set) while hitting .308 and had 20 blocks, one solo. He also leads with 13 aces. Senior outside Will Tischler has 83 kills (3.19/set) and hits .331. Freshman opposite Luke Denton has 72 kills (2.77/set) and 18 blocks, junior middle Kyle Piekarski has 57 kills (1.97) and Narup has 54 (1.93/set) and a team-leading 36 blocks, four solo. And sophomore setter Garrett Zolg is averaging 10.9 assists and while he doesn’t attack often, has 19 kills while hitting .607.
“Even if we had seven seniors out there, you still have to get better from when we got here in August and if we want to be good in May. We just have to get better,” Hulse said. “Everyone is trying to get better. You know the other teams are. You just have to keep up.”