ROMEOVILLE – A 25-19 opening-set victory was just the start that Lewis University’s men’s volleyball team hoped for Friday when they hosted rival Loyola University in a first-place Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association showdown between a pair of nationally-ranked teams before a capacity crowd at Neil Carey Arena.
But the end of the second set and start of the third proved to be a different matter for the seventh-ranked Flyers, who saw a 17-13 lead slip away as the 11th-ranked Ramblers rallied for a 25-23 win and followed that by putting themselves in control in the final stages of the third set by claiming four-point leads on six different occasions.
But with their backs against the wall in the third set and down 23-19, the Flyers came back to life by rallying for seven of the final eight points to pull out a wild 26-24 win and carried that momentum into the fourth set by grabbing an early advantage and building on it from there to capture a 25-19, 23-25, 26-24, 25-19 victory to extend their winning streak to 10.
Lewis (17-4, 8-0) also won 3-1 over Loyola (13-7, 6-2) when the two met March 1 in Chicago. The win gives coach Dan Friend’s Flyers a two-match lead over the Ramblers, who dropped their fourth-straight match. Lewis begins its final road trip Thursday with a match at No. 13 Purdue Fort Wayne and then at No. 15 Ball State two days later.
The Flyers received big efforts from Julian Moses (16 kills), Ryan Coenen (13 kills, eight digs), Tyler Mitchem (12 kills, .455 hitting), TJ Murray (seven kills, .600 hitting), Matt Yoshimoto (46 assists) and Michael Simmons (13 digs) while Jake Walenga came off the bench to provide a big lift for the Flyers when they needed it in the decisive third set.
“Jake does a great job of coming in and being that spark and that was pretty self-evident since he came in energized us since he made two or three plays for us and that really turned that game and then we carried the momentum into game four,” Friend said. “The older group of guys have done a nice job to keep fighting, even if a couple of things don’t go their way.
“We shouldn’t have lost Set 2, but they made a run on us, so credit to that entire group to keep their heads in it. We’re just trying to take one game at a time in what we’re doing. We’ve got a tough road trip next week so we’ll get a little rest and recover to put ourselves in a position to compete on the road.”
Late in the third set, the Flyers received two kills apiece from Moses and Walenga to go along with a good service run from Coenen to rally for a 24-23 advantage. And then after Loyola’s Will Tischler (17 kills) tied it at 24 with a kill, Moses recorded another kill before the Ramblers had a long kill attempt.
“I’m obviously not the biggest guy, so I have to make up for it in other ways,” Walenga said. “As everyone else is getting tired on the court, I’m coming in fresh and I bring some new energy and that works. We’re an older team with a lot of seniors so we’ve been through it all and when it comes to these situations, we’re obviously comfortable. And we were at home with the fans behind us in a crowded gym and this is the one that we circle on the calendar.”
The comeback win over a quality program obviously shows the type of perseverance that the Flyers will need to demonstrate in upcoming weeks if they want to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time since their 2015 team lost to Loyola in the 2015 title match.
“We’re really happy that the guys on the court got together and worked really well and Jake really played his part well,” Moses said. “We’re really happy about this since it’s always a tough match. We’re just trying to get better every week and ultimately we want to be our best in April and May, so we’re just going to keep working to achieve that.”
After facing eight teams who are ranked in the top 15 in the nation this season, Lewis is obviously well-prepared for the big challenges that it hopes to encounter down the road.
“We have a lot of seniors and juniors so we’ve been through it all,” Yoshimoto said. “I believe that winning that third set definitely won us the match. A good things is that we’re super deep on our team so if someone’s not having a good game, the next guy is ready to step up. I like our confidence since we’ve been everywhere and gone through every scenario.”