After getting swept by the No. 2 team in the nation last weekend, Penn State is in for a pair of tests against two nationally ranked MIVA teams this weekend.
No. 14 Penn State will travel to Illinois to take on No. 1 Loyola-Chicago on Friday and No. 10 Lewis on Saturday. First serve for both contests is set for 7 p.m.
There are multiple layers to the matchups this weekend, so the best place to start is at the top, which is precisely where Loyola sits in the AVCA coaches’ poll.
By the numbers
The Ramblers have amassed an impressive 17-1 record so far this season. The average spectator might see that No. 1 Loyola belongs to the MIVA conference and think the soft level of competition has led to an inflated record, but that is simply not the case.
In fact, seven of Loyola’s 17 wins have come against ranked opponents — including a five-set victory to open the season against then-No. 1 UC Irvine and a sweep of No. 3 BYU. Among the other impressive Ramblers statistics so far this season include 11 sweeps, an unbeaten road record, and a 2-1 record against MPSF foes .
How exactly has Loyola become such a nationally feared volleyball powerhouse? Smart players and smart coaching, Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
Pavlik said Loyola coach Shane Davis, in his 11th season at the helm , has become one of the “bright young coaching stars” in the nation.
“I just really like how Shane takes his team and makes them that competitive year in and year out,” Pavlik said. “He’s No. 1 in the country for a reason, and I think he has them playing really well.”
The Ramblers attack is especially dangerous, boasting five players who have totaled more than 100 kills so far this season — redshirt senior Joseph Smalzer leads the team with 202 .
Davis took over the program in 2004 and has coached his team to a winning record in each season. He has coached seven All-Americans and two MIVA players of the year, including Smalzer, who won the award last season.
Last season was also a landmark year as Davis led his team to its first NCAA Final Four appearance in program history .
This weekend’s matches will be the Lions’ final non-conference matches of the season . Despite the little impact the matches will have in Penn State’s quest for a 16th consecutive EIVA title, senior Peter Russell knows they are important nonetheless.
“I think every match has meaning,” Russell said, “and if a match doesn’t have meaning to a team, I don’t think they should really be playing college volleyball.”
Loyola will be the first test, but Saturday’s game against Lewis will be a similar challenge. The No. 10 Flyers (15-4) have a variety of options on offense much like Loyola, with four players who have more than 100 kills — including redshirt junior Geoff Powell and junior Greg Petty, who each have more than 200 .
While Pavlik is excited to test his team against the No. 1 team in the country, he is also warning them not to overlook Lewis.
“Everybody talks about Loyola, but I think Lewis is a top-five team in the country,” Pavlik said. “We could come out of this weekend 0-2, and play well. And this is the challenge they’re really starting to step up to.”
Home away from home
While Penn State serves as the Lions’ headquarters during the school year, four members of the team call Illinois home.
Freshman Joey Farrell, redshirt freshmen Matt Callaway and Spencer Sauter, and sophomore Zack Parik all hail from the Prairie State .
Farrell said his family will be in attendance for the matches, and is hoping to come out with some big wins to give the team a boost.
The 6-foot-5 outside hitter is one of two freshmen who travel with the team. He has seen action in nine of the team’s 19 matches, and has totaled nine kills so far this season.
Callaway echoed his teammate’s excitement about having the opportunity to play in front of some old friends and family, but the middle hitter also has a unique connection to an opponent the Lions will see Friday night.
Thomas Jaeschke, a sophomore outside hitter for the Ramblers , was one of Callaway’s best friends from Wheaton. The two played together at Wheaton Warrenville South, where they won the state championship together in 2012.
Both players have made significant contributions to their respective teams this season. Jaeschke ranks second on his team in kills with 192 , and Callaway leads Penn State in total blocks with 60 .
Callaway is looking forward to playing the top-ranked team in the country, but is even more excited about playing against his best friend for the first time.
“It’s going to be a battle, I’m sure,” Callaway said. “Whoever comes out on top, we’ll be happy for each other, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Garrett Ross can be reached at email@example.com or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @garrett_ross.