The latest NCAA men’s volleyball ranking predictably has UCLA sitting at No. 1 in the West Coast-dominated sport.
The surprise is the team sharing top honors with the Bruins in the AVCA men’s poll — Loyola.
The Ramblers made program history this week by ascending to the top spot after three weeks ranked No. 2. Any national ranking might seem improbable for a mid-sized Catholic university located in the wintry climes of the Midwest — except that Loyola has been a national power for years.
“Traditionally, the West Coast tradition of volleyball has so much more history,’’ Loyola coach Shane Davis said. “The picture is of playing on the beach. Even 10 years ago, you probably had guys playing basketball first and volleyball second.’’
That has changed as indoor volleyball has gained exposure through television and the Olympics, especially after the U.S. men’s team won the gold medal in 2008.
What changed Loyola arguably was Davis.
Eleven years ago, the Iowa native was finishing his playing career at Loyola, where he was a second-team All-American and leader of the team that reached the championship game of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, one of the three conferences in NCAA men’s volleyball.
Then he turned to coaching the team. He guided the development of Loyola first into a regional power and then a national force, with the Ramblers reaching the NCAA Final Four last season.
The Ramblers (6-1) have even higher aspirations.
“We’ve had a lot of success, but this team is made up of bigger, stronger athletes who are great at volleyball,’’ Davis said. “We had big, strong athletes before, but they have the skill level, and they come from volleyball backgrounds.’’
Four of the Ramblers hail from California volleyball hotbeds — senior co-captain Peter Jasaitis and freshman Jagger Kroener are from Manhattan Beach, senior Torey Darin is from Huntington Beach and junior Cody Caldwell is from Newport Beach.
“It didn’t start until 2007,’’ Davis said of cracking the West Coast recruiting market. “We came in kind of late on recruiting Tommy Becker [a high-school star from Manhattan Beach, the program’s first California signee]. His parents ran a popular bakery in Manhattan Beach, so a lot of people got to know about us. It started a nice pipeline to what’s going on here.’’
The roster also includes four Chicago-area players—senior co-captain Joe Smalzer from Palos Heights; senior Kevin Maxwell, from Chicago; sophomore Diego Rodriguez from Oak Park and sophomore Thomas Jaeschke from Wheaton.
“My mom was coming home from a trip to California and happened to sit next to coach Davis,’’ said Jaeschke, an outside hitter whom Davis calls “a next-level guy.’’
“But I also was close to committing to Penn State. There was something about Loyola. It’s really a great school.’’
Winning has become Loyola’s best recruiting tool.
The ultimate recruiting tool is a national championship, and that goal is more enticing because Loyola will host the NCAA Final Four on May 1 and 3 at its Gentile Arena — the first time a collegiate championship will be held in Chicago.