Loyola coach Shane Davis and several of his players participated in the NCAA Tournament media day on Wednesday in Los Angeles.
Loyola making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history will play the No. 2 seed UC Irvine in the semifinals Thursday.
Check out what Davis and the Rambler players had to say about reaching the NCAA Tournament, the increasing level of talent in the Midwest and if the team thinks it can upset UC Irvine in the semifinals
Media question: Coach, can you talk about your team’s late-season surge to the NCAA Tournament?
Shane Davis, Loyola coach: We just focused on being a better team. We had such a young group, we were just trying to find out what the guys could bring to court. We faced some challenges and took everything we learned at that point, put it all on paper and took off. These guys find ways to win. They are a great group of guys both on and off the court. It has been a pleasure coaching these guys this year.
Media question: What was the turning point for your team this season?
Shane Davis: We changed our setter midway through the season. Peter Hutz took over from Diego Rodriguez, and that was our turning moment as a program.
Media question: What’s the difference between MPSF players and Midwest players?
Shane Davis: MPSF players are starting to play as early as they can walk. It’s just a different experience out here. In the Midwest, the big sports are soccer, basketball or football, so kids play later. There is a good deal of catching up to do, but volleyball has become huge in the Midwest and is growing. There are some really great volleyball players in the Midwest and East Coast.
Media question: What will you need to do against UC Irvine to win?
Shane Davis: For us it’s all about consistency at this point. We’re a young group, we just need to become consistent. We don’t need to play our best on every play; we just need to play at a high level throughout to get past Irvine. Irvine runs a fast-tempo offense. They’re similar to Lewis, who we beat to get here but with more ball control. It’s going to come down to the serve and pass game. It’s going to be a good battle.
Media question: What’s your recruiting pitch to get players to come to Loyola?
Shane Davis: The biggest piece is that Loyola University is a high academic school, in Chicago, downtown on the lake. We call it the Midwest Pepperdine. It’s not quite Malibu, but it’s pretty close. Loyola doesn’t have a football team, so Loyola Volleyball is like our BCS team. The kids are noticed around campus, people know who they are. Even before you get to campus, people already know who you are. It’s a good selling point for us.
Media question: Can you talk about Joseph Smalzer’s development?
Shane Davis: I expected big things from him when recruiting him. He was going to be the next big thing as a setter – great arm, great serve, great blocker. His redshirt year we put him in the second team as an opposite, and the more we thought about it, we saw that he’s great at attacking. So we messed with him at opposite on the starting side, and our ball control was poor at that time, so we made him a passing opposite. He works his butt off and deserves everything he’s gotten at this point.
Media question: Has this team progressed earlier than expected?
Shane Davis: In the beginning of year, we thought we were young, with all these freshmen, but they surprised me. We didn’t think they were ready in January, but by mid-April, we realized they’re not freshmen anymore; they started to become men. To have all these guys returning, it’s a good experience going into next year.
Peter Jasaitis, Loyola libero: It’s been my goal for four years to make the Final Four, so it’s nice to finally be here. … I’ve had friends or other students come up to me and say ‘This school wins national championships every 50 years, so it’s up to you guys or women’s softball.’ We’re trying not to let them down.
Media question: What’s it like having a mix of California and Midwest players on the team
Peter Jasaitis: It makes a nice hybrid. We’re not all from same background, and we have diverse backgrounds. Lots of guys from the Midwest played other sports. That diversity is what makes us push each other to get better. It creates a nice melting pot when you get kids across the nation in one program.”
Media question: What can you take from playing California teams earlier in the year?
Peter Jasaitis: It’s not scary. You think of these California teams, and you think of them as the big guys. The MPSF gets two teams in the tournament. Even though we had rough time with sickness, we’re young guys, and we learned it’s not scary. We learned what we needed, and we think we’re in pretty good spot to get to where we are at this point.
Media question: What’s your thoughts on the talent in the Midwest?
Peter Jasaitis: When teams get hot, there is a lot of talent out there, such as Ball State, Lewis. It’s such a hyped-up rivalry. We put our A game out there. Throughout the year, any team can step up their game. There’s no one you can overlook. We just want to be consistent like the MPSF teams are – that’s what we are looking for.”
Media question: Joseph, can you talk about your transition from setter to opposite
Joseph Smalzer, Loyola outside attacker: The setting position is the most fun position. You have the most control over the game, but the movement from the right side to passing has been a fun ride.
[Editor’s note: Transcript compiled by the UCLA athletics communications department]