#7 Loyola Falls to UCLA, Defeats Penn State in Pair of Four-Set Affairs

by Tim Hackett
Medill Reports

Mahan’s career week helps Ramblers salvage home split

After UC Santa Barbara snapped their six-game winning streak  Saturday, the #7 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers returned home to Gentile Arena for matches against a pair of teams with 21 NCAA men’s volleyball national championships between them,. They faced off against #5 UCLA and (RV) Penn State.

Loyola has plenty of successes in its legacy, too, but not head-to-head against the Bruins. Prior to Thursday, the two programs had faced off seven times since 1998 and the Bruins had won every time.

Thursday night’s matchup of two of the most efficient offenses in the country provided plenty of fireworks. Loyola got off to a torrid start, scoring the first six points of the match before parlaying that into a 19-13 lead. But then UCLA won a point, and setter Micah Ma’a headed back to the service line and sparked a 6-0 Bruin run with three assists and three aces to lift UCLA to a 20-19 lead, its first advantage of the night.

Undeterred, Loyola hung around to force the first set point at 25-24, but the Bruins won the final three points to win the first set 27-25, part of a 14-6 overall run to close out the frame.

The Ramblers turned up the defense in set two, notching two blocks and turning a few Bruin errors into a 12-6 lead. UCLA stayed within two or three points for much of the frame, thanks to six kills in the set from explosive middle Daenan Gyimah, before Loyola crept out to a 24-20 lead. UCLA staved off three set points, but Collin Mahan put an end to the comeback bid by terminating his ninth kill of the match to win the set 25-23.

Self-inflicted errors doomed Loyola in a third set that either team could have won. Neither side led by more than two until UCLA scored five straight points – all on Loyola errors – to grab an 18-15 lead the Bruins wouldn’t relinquish. UCLA didn’t commit a single attack error in the frame, finishing with a sparkling .611 team hitting percentage and a 25-21 win.

The fourth set was the closest of the match. Two points once again marked the largest lead until Will Tischler, in the midst of a poor night by his standards, sparked a mini 3-0 Loyola run for an 18-14 Rambler lead. But then Ma’a stepped up, delivering three kills as part of a 6-2 UCLA run to even the score at 20 apiece. Loyola got the lead back on a kill by Devin Joslyn, but UCLA won five of the final seven points – three of those points came courtesy of Tischler errors – to win Set 4 25-23 and improve to 8-0 all-time against Loyola.

“I would hope that we’re not going to say, ‘We got a bad result, let’s change everything,’” Loyola head coach Mark Hulse said. “We’re always trying to improve. If we would’ve won, I would hope that we’d go to the gym tomorrow and say, ‘Let’s get better.’ It’s always dangerous: when you win, you think everything’s perfect. You lose, you think it all stinks.”

The matchup between two of the nation’s top setters lived up to the hype. UCLA’s Ma’a flirted with a triple-double, steered his team to a hitting percentage above .400, and helped Gyimah turn in an 18-kill, .740 percentage night. On the other side, Loyola’s Garrett Zolg had three kills and four aces, but the Ramblers’ only consistent offensive option was Mahan, who finished with 13 kills and an efficiency of better than .500, the only Rambler that could say both of those things.

“When things are going south a little bit it’s important to trust your stuff,” Mahan said. “What you do day in and day out, you shouldn’t go away from it just because you’re making a couple of errors. Trust your stuff, and just do what you’re good at. I’ve been in this situation for quite some time now and I’ve got a lot of good guys around me. Garrett delivers a great ball, and we’re passing the rock solid right now, so there’s nothing really to worry about. You just gotta trust your stuff, and, usually, it works out.”

It worked out for Mahan in a big way on Saturday as Loyola faced off against Penn State for the 26th time in the history of the two storied programs. The overall series record was close, with Loyola holding a slim 14-11 advantage, but the home teams have usually dominated: Loyola was 12-3 all-time against the Nittany Lions in Chicago.

Seeking to reverse the trend, Penn State navigated through a tight first set to take a 17-13 lead before Tischler committed a service error and a reception error to hand the visitors an 18-14 advantage. Hulse wasted no time replacing Tischler with Joslyn again, and the change gave the Ramblers a little spark – but the Nittany Lions swiftly stamped it out, winning the first set 25-21.

Strong Loyola serving quickly reignited that fire. The Ramblers recorded three aces in the second frame but eliminated Penn State’s ability to run its offense by forcing Nittany Lion defenders to make tough pass after tough pass. Joslyn recorded three kills to help Loyola to an 11-7 lead, which then ballooned to 18-8 after Penn State committed three straight errors. The Nittany Lions could get no closer, and Loyola walked away with a comfortable 25-16 victory.

Joslyn’s hard-earned magic ran out in the third frame as Penn State forced him into three straight errors to establish a 15-11 lead. Needing a change, Hulse took Joslyn out and put Tischler back in, and the Ramblers responded, winning eight of the next ten points to snag a 19-17 lead before Penn State won three of the next four to even things at 20 apiece. From there, it was a marathon –  both teams terminated well and leveled the score nine times in the final stretch before Kyle Piekarski got a kill and then teamed up with Zolg for a block to help Loyola eke out a 31-29 win.

In another tight set, Penn State took four straight points to a establish an 8-5 lead before Loyola answered with a 7-2 stretch. Penn State would eventually level the score at 17, and the two teams debuted a sequel to the marathon that was the previous set: there were eight more tied scores down the final stretch before, with the score tied at 25, Zolg once again set up Piekarski for a kill and then the two teamed up for a block to send the Ramblers home with a four-set win.

“They were really, really scrappy and put a ton of pressure on us to win some points that were a little ugly,” Hulse said. “I thought we were good enough tonight. We kind of scrapped through some plays, and a lot of that has to do with a couple guys that came off the bench: Devin for a little bit, Dane (LeClair) on the back end, steadied us out, gave us some really good energy when we needed it, and we played some really good volleyball.”

Zolg set a new career high with 57 assists, adding in 11 digs and four blocks for his first career double-double, but it was Mahan who once again stole the show, leading all players with a career-high 24 kills and 11 digs with a .475% to lead the charge. Not every shot was one for his highlight reel, but he once again stepped up in the decisive moments, delivering seven kills in the final frame.

“Volleyball’s the epitome of a team sport, you can’t do it all by yourself,” Mahan said. “You can’t touch it twice in a row, so the other guys have to be playing well. You try to feed off each other’s energy, try to get it going. “It was one of those days where some balls just kept falling, and also I was making some good swings. I was getting the ball in perfect spots, and you love to see that. Overall we were making some good digs, making some good reads around what Penn State was giving us, and we were able to put it back down.”

Loyola next hits the road for a pair of games to kick off MIVA conference play, starting with in-state DII foe Quincy on Friday.

Photo at top: UCLA’s Brandon Rattray sneaks a shot through the block and into the back row where Paul Narup (23) awaits. Rattray finished tied for second on his team with his 11 kills. (Tim Hackett//Medill)