Close enough, yeah?

Match report — NCAA national championship, Loyola vs Stanford

This is what we live for. Two of the best teams in the nation battling it out for the right to be called national champions in 2014. In the red corner, the Stanford Cardinal, they of one of the strongest college sport pedigrees in the nation, winners of national championships of some kind for an amazing 37 straight years, and winners of this men’s volleyball national championship back in 2010.

In the….other….red corner (white corner? They did wear white tonight), the Loyola Ramblers, playing in the NCAA tournament for just the second time ever. They’ve got one national title in school history. Despite the fact that the match was held in Chicago and featured a vehemently pro-Loyola crowd, it was tough to not still see the Ramblers, at least at some level, as the interlopers. Both teams earned their way here with thrilling five-set wins in the semifinals, and were poised to give that Loyola crowd their money’s worth again tonight.

Thomas Jaeschke started the match on serve for the Ramblers, and Brian Cook got Stanford their sideout right away. At 2-1, Spencer Haly‘s jump-float got the Ramblers badly out of system, leading to a block for Conrad Kaminski to put the Cardinal up by two. Loyola quickly drew even, an unforced hitting error from Steven Irvin making it 3-all. Loyola took their first lead of the night at 5-4, with Nick Olson leading the double block against Irvin. Loyola should have had a chance to go up two on the 6-5 rally, as Joe Smalzer let a ball fall a foot in front of him that he appeared to be looking at the whole way. Not sure how that happened. At 7-6, setter James Shaw‘s dump was called down for a kill, but the replay clearly showed that the Ramblers got the pancake dig. Crowing was kept to a minimum, and play resumed. The Ramblers took the two-point lead at 10-8, following a nice line kill from Cody Caldwell.

Then the teams traded service errors for quite a stretch. Loyola’s two-point advantage remained through to the media timeout at 15-13. The Ramblers scored first after the timeout, with a kill from Smalzer and a hitting error on the Stanford side making it 17-13. That prompted Stanford to call a charged timeout. The roll continued after the charged timeout, with another Cardinal hitting error making it a five-point match at 18-13. An over-dig landed long to make it 19-13, and Stanford called their second charged timeout, facing a six-point deficit.

Finally, Haly got the Cardinal their long-awaited sideout at 19-14. A net fault against Stanford got Loyola to 20 well in advance of the Cardinal. The Ramblers went to a serving sub, Trevor Novotny, at 20-14, but he took his one opportunity and drilled the net. Stanford also then went to a serving sub, Madison Hayden, and his one opportunity flew long. Tit for tat. That sent Smalzer to the back line. Commentator Sam Gore took a bit of a chance by saying “Smalzer’ll show us how it’s done,” but Joe made sure Sam didn’t look silly. His serve elicited an overpass, that Caldwell on the Rambler front line put away. His next serve also flew back over the net, leading to a thunderous back row kill for Olson.

Loyola reached set point on the next rally, with one of those rallies where it’s just a case of everything going for them. A sprawling dig from Smalzer kept alive a roll shot from the Stanford side, and then a funky little roll shot from the Rambler left side ‘surfed the net’ for just a moment before falling blissfully untouched in-bounds. Loyola reached set point at a rather shocking 24-15, the result of a 9-2 run since the media timeout. The Cardinal staved off the first point with a kill from Kaminski, and then a net fault on the Ramblers made it 24-17. The service error from Mochalski then made it 25-17, set 1 to Loyola.

The Ramblers hit .696 in the set, with no attack errors. That’ll get it done.

Loyola kept the ball rolling to begin set 2, with Smalzer getting the first ball sideout from the right side. It touched off a brief sideout string, as Stanford kept the score level. They took the lead at 3-2, with Cook sneaking in a service ace, the Cardinal’s first of the match. Loyola took the lead back at 5-4, with Smalzer scoring a very beach-esque dig and then swing for a kill combination of plays. Mochalski got the point back to put Stanford ahead 6-5 with an ace. Jaeschke committed the Ramblers’ first attack error of the night on the 6-5 rally, putting Stanford up by two for the first time in the set. Kills from Owen McAndrews and Smalzer were the immediate equaliser.

After a few more sideouts, another ace, from Shaw, put Stanford up two at 11-9. A second consecutive ace made it 12-9, and Loyola called timeout. After the timeout, a cross-court attack from Caldwell on the left side landed wide, putting the Cardinal up four at 13-9. Shaw’s service run extended through 14-9, on a frenetic rally with a lot of one-arm digs and sets on both sides. Eventually, Stanford got the point with a kill from the back row. Olson at last ended the run with a kill off the quick up the middle. Smalzer then went back to serve, and he let loose a nice one, but Stanford passed it about as well as you can, leading to a kill for Haly in the middle. Stanford turned to their serving sub Hayden again at 16-11, and that rally ended on a hitting error by Jaeschke to give Stanford a six-point lead. Loyola called their second timeout down 17-11.

The Stanford run continued with a kill off the touch and long to put them up 18-11. At last, Loyola got their sideout when Hayden missed a serve long, but no doubt the Cardinal were pleased with his service run. Loyola turned to their serving sub Novotny at 18-12. While he got his serve in, leading to a set and scoring chance for the Ramblers, Jaeschke hit the antenna on his attack. Stanford reached 20 at 20-13, all but flipping the script from set 1. Irvin’s jump-float at 20-13 led to an overpass, and a great kill from Shaw as the ball seemed to go straight down. The All-American setter was visibly excited about that. At 22-14, Stanford brought in another serving sub in Scott Sakaida, but the Ramblers sided out when Stanford committed their first attacking error of the set. Dainis Berzins entered for Loyola on serve at 22-15, and that rally led to a point for Loyola with Olson and Smalzer getting the double block. That prompted Stanford to call timeout.

Berzins got another pretty nice serve off after the timeout, but Stanford passed it well, leading to a kill for Cook. Jaeschke sided the Ramblers out at 23-17 with the back-row kill, but Stanford got to set point on the next rally with a four-contacts call on Loyola. Cook served set point at 24-17, and Caldwell staved it off, sending himself back to serve. Jaeschke saved the next with a roll shot kill from the left side. A net touch against the Ramblers ended the set by a 25-19 final.

The first rally of set 3 was long, going to Loyola with a kill for Smalzer on the right side. The Ramblers took the first two-point lead at 3-1 on an unforced hitting error by Mochalski. Smalzer took to the serve at 4-2, with that point ending with a kill for setter Peter Hutz winning a joust up the middle against the taller Haly, to put Loyola up 5-2. Loyola took the four-point lead at 8-4, with Jaeschke finding hands on his hit that sailed long. Stanford expended a timeout there.

Cook took two big swings at the ball on the 8-4 rally. The first was remarkably saved by the Ramblers on some ‘pinball’ defence, while the second was put away more emphatically. 8-5 was another crazy rally, with both teams quite out of system. It ended with a point for Stanford as Loyola’s final flailing attempts to keep the ball alive came up short. Kaminski put the block up against Caldwell to draw Stanford within two at 9-7. Cook drew the Cardinal a point closer with his kill to make it 10-9, and Loyola called timeout.

Caldwell got the sideout after the timeout, and Cook responded to keep the deficit at a single point. Shaw went for the dump on 12-10, but he pushed it too far and the ball landed out, giving Loyola the three-point edge. It looked like Stanford would come a point closer on the 14-11 rally, as Smalzer’s hit was easily wide, but the Cardinal were ruled in the net. Loyola went ahead by five on the next rally with a big kill from Jaeschke off the overpass, and Stanford called their last timeout of the set.

Caldwell drilled the net on serve after the timeout, siding Stanford out. The Cardinal got back within three at 17-14 with a picture-perfect block from Kaminski and Irvin, as they couldn’t have thrown the ball to a more favourable spot on the court to gain the point. Kaminski had a chance at 18-15 to draw the Cardinal back within two, but he mistimed his hit and it flew well long.

At 19-16, Irvin bobbled the ball while bouncing it before his serve — a bad sign? — and the crowd started crowing. Not sure why, because there’s only a seldom-enforced time limit applied to serving. There’s no rule about having to do it in one motion like all other contacts on the ball. If you don’t like your toss, it’s actually within the rules for you to go back and do it again, though I’ve never actually seen that. The rally itself proved a little contentious, too, as Kaminski was whistled for an overreach, sending Loyola to to 20. He protested with the up official, but to no relief. The call looked like the right one on replay.

Stanford turned to Sakaida again on serve at 20-17. He very nearly had an ace, but Loyola kept the ball up. Eventually, Smalzer got the cross-court kill from the right side. He then went to serve, and got the Ramblers’ first ace of the match. Stanford coach John Kosty inserted Denny Falls as a substitute, a timeout-when-you-have-no-timeouts kind of move, to try to slow down Smalzer. It didn’t work. His next serve also got Stanford out of system, leading to a four-contacts call. Irvin sided the Cardinal out at 23-18, and Cook peeled another back for 23-19. The Ramblers reached set point at 24-19. A thunderous “L! U! C!” cheer broke out on the bump, set, and spike by Caldwell, Jaeschke, and Smalzer, and Loyola took set 3 by 25-19.

Loyola took the first two-point lead of set 4, with Irvin’s back row kill meeting Olson and Hutz in their well-formed double block to make it 3-1. The set went point-for-point for a stretch after that, with Caldwell getting the next point on serve to put the Ramblers up 8-5. A service ace for Jaeschke then made it 9-5, and Stanford called time. The lead reached five after the timeout, with McAndrews leading the double block. A hitting error against Kaminski made it 11-5, and surprisingly, Kosty called his last timeout right there.

The run continued after the timeout, as Jaeschke’s service run took the Ramblers through 13-5, before Cook finally sided Stanford out down seven. 14-7 was one of the longest rallies of the match, featuring a beauty of a dig from Loyola libero Peter Jasaitis as he slid on his backside to pursue a ball. Stanford eventually won the point, though. The block party for the Ramblers kept going, with Olson and Hutz putting up the double block to make it 16-8. Cook took to the serive line at 16-9, getting a point for each team as he served up an ace and then an error. Stanford brought Hayden in to serve at 17-11, but some more great defence, not least by Jasaitis, led to an easy kill for Jaeschke. He slammed the ball off Irvin’s dome for the kill. At 18-12, Hutz made a terrific set for someone as (comparatively speaking) diminutive as he is, saving an overpass with a one-handed jab that set McAndrews’ smash from the middle perfectly.

Loyola reached 20 at a commanding 20-12 margin, and the crowd went crazy. A service ace for Hutz made it 21-12, and it was all over but the shoutin’. A block for Smalzer made it a ten-point margin at 22-12. Stanford managed to play sideout the rest of the way, but the damage was long, long since done. A service error from Sakaida ended the match.

#1 Loyola d. #3 Stanford (25-18, 19-25, 25-19, 25-15)

Stat sheet

Massive congratulations go out to the Ramblers for winning their first national championship in men’s volleyball, and only the second of any kind in the school’s history following the 1963 men’s basketball championship.

Did the stars align for Loyola? Absolutely. They got to play the tournament at home (the entire postseason at home, in fact), they played only two matches in the tournament to Stanford’s three, this was their third match in a week while it was Stanford’s fourth, and they played only one MPSF team in the tournament instead of having to also go through BYU.

Does that take anything away from their accomplishment? Not a chance. The Ramblers played an amazing season in 2014, and I only wish I had seen more of it.

Tournament Most Outstanding Player honours went to Caldwell, with his match-high 20 kills in the final. He also notched a double-double by snagging 10 digs, the only player in the match in double figures in that category. Smalzer and Jaeschke each had 12 kills for Loyola, while Cook, in his final college match, led Stanford with 15.

And with that, NCAA men’s volleyball is put to bed for another season.

Aly Edge

About Aly Edge

Volleyball fan and former PA voice. I endeavour to cover college, major international indoor and beach volleyball, all on both the men's and women's sides. Come along for the ride!