There has been a noticeable presence missing from Loyola’s offense through the early portion of their season as junior outside hitter Jack Howard has missed all of the Ramblers matches thus far due to a nagging injury.
In his absence, Loyola has had to adjust their lineup accordingly, playing people out of position and giving guys repetitions who would not normally see the floor for the Ramblers.
Despite the constant lineup flux, the opportunities given to different players have started to pay off for Loyola, as the Ramblers easily handled Niles North 25-14, 25-18 to improve to 8-6 on the season.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” said Loyola coach Lionel Ebeling. “When Jack comes back we can get people back into their positions but it’s letting people step up and play under the lights and be the go to guy when Jack’s not in there.”
The common theme of the evening was serving, and ball control. Loyola kept Niles North out of system with good aggressive serving, while the Vikings struggled with their serve receive and their setting allowing Loyola to set up blocking opportunities and generate clean attacks via free balls.
After a tight start to the opening set where both teams were tied up at eight a piece, Loyola ran away from the Vikings, finishing the set on a 17-6 run to take the first game.
Ebeling said: “It’s important for us to serve tough, and we have a good block and play good defense behind it but it starts with the tough serves.”
As quickly as the set second set started, Loyola found themselves with leads of 7-2, and 16-8, looking as though they were in complete control of the match.
With such a commanding lead, Loyola took their foot off the gas ever so slightly, which allowed Niles North to pull within two points late in the set. That glimmer of hope was short lived however, as Henry Clemons (7 kills) took over down the stretch to clinch the win for Loyola.
“What we focus on is consistent volleyball, and really that’s what we focus on in practice is we need to find a way to side out,” said Ebeling. “We needed to get the ball to our middles so our passing and serve receive could have been a little bit better to run our middles.”
Having already played 14 matches this season (The most in Illinois), Loyola are arguably the most battle tested team in the state.
While their record may not look overly impressive at first glance, appearances at the Vernon Hills Tournament and the Tiger Classic have shown that the Ramblers have come a long way since their season opening loss against Niles West.
“That first match is always hard, but it was good from a coaching perspective because there were a lot of things that were exposed that we could watch film and get better at,” said Ebeling. “We have six losses, but five of those are to top 10 teams. We’re really battle tested and it sounds so cliche but I’m really hoping we’re going to find our groove and get hot when it counts in May.”
Loyola will have a much needed week off before starting conference play against St. Francis, while Niles North will head up to Gurnee for the Warren Invite this weekend.