Coach Shane Davis and his Loyola team may be in unfamiliar territory making its first NCAA Tournament appearance, but the Ramblers could not be more ready for the opportunity.
Loyola after winning its first MIVA Tournament championship in program history during the weekend qualified for the four-team NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed and will play the No. 2 seed UC Irvine in the semifinals on Thursday in Los Angeles.
Off the Block conducted an interview with Davis earlier this week to discuss Loyola’s chances of upsetting UC Irvine, how meditation has been a key to his team’s success this year and the development of All-American outside attacker Joseph Smalzer.
Check out the transcript from the interview below.
Off the Block: Coach you guys made it to the NCAA Tournament and have UC Irvine coming up in the semifinals. What’s your initial thoughts on that match?
Shane Davis, Loyola coach: They are a very tough team. They have been on this stage before given that they won it last year. They are somewhat similar to Lewis in the fact that they use the quick and bic and the fast tempo, only with a little bit better ball control. They serve well like Lewis. It’s nothing new that we haven’t seen before, but it’s going to be a good, tough match for us. Our guys feel good.
OTB: This is the first time you’re going to the NCAA Tournament and I know that doesn’t happen a lot at Loyola for many sports. What is the mood like on campus right now?
SD: There is an incredible energy here at Loyola and there was in a sense even before this even happened just with our new administration and new facilities and where Loyola is going. This is just adding to it all. You’ve got everyone coming by the office. We just have support from the top down. From the president to the VP and AD asking how we are doing, if we need anything. It’s a cool thing. We don’t have football, and our basketball team is so-so. It’s kind of nice and good energy.
OTB: Coach there have been stories published that when you took over this program 10 years ago you were concerned the program was going to get cut. Could you have ever imagined back then you’d now be in the Final Four?
SD: When I took the job it was a part-time position. It was suppose to be a one-year deal, but I kind of liked it. It rubbed off on me a little bit and kind of went with it. We were so close in 2005 and 2006 [to making the NCAA Tournament], and it was like hey we can do this. By then, I didn’t really understand the ins-and-outs of a program and all the things going into it and we kind of fell off the map for a little bit for a couple of years. Then we got a ton of support financially. That really helped us with additional staff and moving us back in the right direction. Being in the MIVA championship the last three out of four years, sooner or later it’s going happen. It’s great it’s this time, and in my 10th year. It’s been 10 years since I played my last match against Lewis. It came at the right time.
OTB: Going off that, how do you keep your team focused on trying to win the next two matches to get a national championship after getting a pretty emotional win against Lewis to make your first NCAA Tournament?
SD: We’ve done a lot this year in preparing the guys to play at a high level and the next level. As a coach you prepare these guys to be successful in life after they are done here at Loyola. We’ve done a good job of that, especially this year. We’ve involved meditation and getting our chaplain involved, who goes on a retreat with us. It’s really working on guys handling pressure and pressure situations, game-five situations. When things are on the line like sets and different things like that. I think meditation and all that extra, additional stuff outside of the volleyball court has really helped us this year, especially with the freshmen we have. We’ve got three freshmen and a sophomore starting for us and one of those freshmen is a setter. I think a lot of that stuff and all that preparation that we’ve done outside of the court has really paid off for us. I think that will continue through this process.
OTB: Last time you were out in California it was to open your season and you went 0-3 at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational. We’ve heard the stories of your entire team being sick for those matches and throwing up on the way to the arena. What’s been the biggest changes with your team since playing out there?
SD: We had a few injuries that started off the season. We had a guy go down with an ACL. Just kind of little things like that. [Peter] Hutz who had been setting had a back injury and he was out for two months, and that kind of allowed for the other freshman Diego [Rodriguez] to take over for a little bit. And that’s when we were kind of in that January to early-February run when we were a 10-8 team at that point. We tweaked that. We got [Cody] Caldwell back in the lineup who is just a great volleyball player. Huge volleyball IQ, and is just kind of that calm within the storm out there a little bit. He has a great presence for us. And just the setter change. I think that was our turning point. It was after the IPFW [loss] here at Loyola. That was our time of change for the season, and we just kind of built off that and kept going and going.
OTB: Talking about one of your players Joseph Smalzer, he had another great season. One of the things that jumps out is more than 70 aces and winning the Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. National Server of the Year. What is it like as a coach to have that kind of server for you who can potential go on a five-point run every time?
SD: It allows you to be in any set no matter where you are in points whether you’re a little bit behind or you have an opportunity to extend your lead when he goes back to serve. He’s getting much better in clutch situations. He’s having more success after the opposing coach calls a timeout, and he comes back out there and rips another great serve. He’s doing that sought of stuff that’s been a change from last year. He’s been a clutch situation player for us. I think your first-team awards and Player of the Year awards all that stuff makes him feel like, “hey, I am pretty good.” I think he’s got a boost in confidence this year, and I think that translated into the playoffs this year where last year he was struggling going into the postseason.
OTB: We’ve talked about your All-American. UC Irvine has an All-American outside attacker in Kevin Tillie. What do you have to do to prevent Tillie from having a big match against your team?
SD: Man, he is a great player. Great international experience. He’s just a guy you got to get in front of him and hopefully you get a few on him. I don’t think he’s had too many off matches this year. I’m sure he’s a Player of the Year candidate. He’s probably going to bring it. He’s great in tournament play. He was great last year in the NCAA Tournament. So, we expect him to be great again. We just hope we can kind of exploit a few of their other weaknesses and take advantage of that situation and keep it tight.
OTB: You guys are in a little bit of a unique situation this year because you are in the NCAA Tournament and will be the hosting the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Obviously your focus is going to be on the matches, but are you or the administration going to be looking to see some of things UCLA is doing and try to apply them to when you host the tournament next year?
SD: We are out there to win. We will just kind of keep it like that. After this tournament is over we will kind of look at this and see what was a great experience for our players and our coaches. We’ve got administration that is going out with us that is going to be focused a lot on how things are done out there, what went well and what to work on. Other coaches are also chiming in and helping us a little bit for next year in some of their past experiences. Administration will look at how things are done, and it’s been a pretty cool experience for them so far.