March 1, 2013
CHICAGO - A player takes his position at the service line, holding the ball in front of him as he takes a deep breath. The ball is served over the net and the opposing team prepares for battle.
Dig. Set. Attack. Repeat. Dig. Set. Attack.
A whistle signals the play has ended and the team explodes in excitement, the intensity resonating throughout the gym as a point is awarded.
It may be just another morning practice for Loyola University Chicago, but the team remains focused on what lies ahead. Seventeen games into the 2013 season, the Ramblers have experienced each victory and each defeat as a collective unit. And as a unit, they continue moving forward, a band of brothers with one goal in mind: win.
As Loyola prepares for tonight's match against No. 7 Ohio State, the team is confident in what its members bring to the court. Whether it is the starters, serving substitutes or reserves, every player makes a significant contribution.
"Every guy in the gym plays a role and can help us win a conference championship," said head coach Shane Davis. "We have seven starters, but there's always someone knocking on the door and I think that says a lot about the team we have and the program here at Loyola. It's great to have this amount of depth and that's something new for us."
After debuting five freshmen and returning 13 letterwinners, Loyola is a team characterized by fresh talent and seasoned success. Earning a 10-7 overall record halfway through the season, the Ramblers continue to make changes, working to put the final touches on a team capable of winning the conference championship.
"Right now we're changing things up in order to find the right group and personnel that work best together," said Davis. "It's not about finding the players with the best numbers, but also taking into account the intangibles and what they can bring to the court. It's about finding a group that feeds off each other's strengths."
Time and time again the coaching staff stresses the importance of finding a spark within its players: the ability to rally the troops in a come-from-behind victory or to remain unrattled by a run from the opponent. It is these traits that characterize the intangibles that will further push the team to success.
Through testing players in certain situations and careful observation, Davis has begun to piece together the puzzle. With three freshmen in the starting lineups, there has been a period of adjustment for everyone. As the newcomers work to keep up with the challenges of collegiate volleyball, the veterans continue to acquaint themselves with a new team dynamic.
"It has taken a while to figure out our identity," said redshirt junior Peter Jasaitis. "We're working to develop a trust with everyone. Once you trust someone will make a play, you can move on and anticipate what's going to happen next. That's what allows us to play volleyball not as a reaction sport, but as an anticipation sport, and that's the level we're trying to be at right now."
That anticipation is what will make the difference in the Ramblers match against Ohio State. Facing a team undefeated in conference play and riding a nine-game win streak, Loyola knows it will have to adapt to changes on the fly and play its best game. It is this challenge that fuels the Ramblers.
"We're not intimidated by a team name," said Jasaitis. "There's a lot more confidence and swagger than in years' past. We feel like we have that competitive edge that will allow us to hang in the gym with any physical talent that we go up against."
Tonight's match will be the sixth time Loyola has played a ranked opponent this season. A win against the Buckeyes would only reinforce that the Ramblers are on the right track, while also marking the first time since 2006 that the team has defeated Ohio State in St. John Arena.
"This group is really good at staying calm and in the moment," said Davis. "It's another match, a good quality opponent and we're prepared for Ohio State. They know what they need to do to get the job done."