Eight years in, Loyola stands tall with Davis

Shane Davis took over Loyola as a 23-year-old and, eight years later, has turned the Ramblers into a formidable program. Courtesy Steve Woltmann

CHICAGO -- Shane Davis believed Loyola’s administrators were hoping he would fail when they hired him as the Ramblers men’s volleyball coach at the age of 23.

Davis couldn’t think of any other explanation why they chose him to be one of the youngest Division I coaches in NCAA history. His resume was nearly blank. His only experience was as a three-year captain at Loyola, but Davis understood that wasn’t nearly impressive enough to land him a head job at his age.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Why did they hire me? What was the point?’ ” Davis said. “Men’s volleyball in the Horizon League is non- existent. We have our own conference [Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association]. I questioned, ‘Did they hire me to fail in terms of trying to get baseball?’ “

Davis used the perceived lack of confidence as motivation. He wasn’t going to let Loyola’s volleyball program crumble under his watch.

Eight years later, the program still stands, and it stands tall. Under Davis, the Ramblers have become a nationally-ranked program that contends for an MIVA championship and a spot in the NCAA Final Four nearly every season.

This year, the Ramblers are 20-7 -- their sixth 20-win season under Davis -- and are ranked No. 12 in the country. They finished second to Ohio State during the MIVA regular season and just advanced to the MIVA tournament semifinals with a win on Saturday.

Loyola hosts Quincy in the semifinals on Wednesday with the winner likely facing top-seeded Ohio State in the championship. The winner of the MIVA tournament advances to the four-team NCAA tournament.

In eight seasons, a lot has changed for Davis and Loyola’s program.

The first two years were rocky, especially off the court. Davis had to learn fast the ins and outs of recruiting, budgets, scheduling, all of the NCAA’s rules and his various administrative duties.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Davis said. “The AD when he hired me said, ‘OK, you know where the desk is.’ So I went up there and sat behind the desk that so many times I had sat on the other side of it talking to the coach.

“The first couple years I didn’t have a full-time assistant or anything like that. The biggest thing was trying to keep my head above water at that point. I put in tons of hours and did everything I could to keep it going and keep it alive.”

On the court was a different story. Davis knew volleyball, and he knew his personnel. Almost all of his players were his teammates from the year before. Having been Loyola’s captain, Davis already had the respect of his players, and they followed his lead as coach.

In Davis’ first season in 2004, Loyola went 20-8 overall and finished second in the MIVA with a 12-4 record. A year later, the Ramblers were 26-3 overall and took first in the MIVA with a 15-1 mark.

By the third season, Davis knew he and the program weren’t going anywhere.

“The more success we had, the more money was coming in, more help generated from the student body, then it started to liven up,” Davis said. “Then the administration was like, ‘Hmm, we could have a niche here.’ ”

Davis now has two assistants. His budget has expanded. He is allowed to recruit outside of the Midwest, and he has taken advantage of that with this year’s roster including players from everywhere from Lithuania to California to Pennsylvania.

Davis also has developed as a coach. He can project better what a recruit can be down the line. His in-match strategies have evolved.

He has also toned himself down on the bench. He’s no longer the 23-year-old coach who celebrates a point as if he was a player himself. Davis can still relate to his players, but doesn’t try to be one of them.

“I’ve just heard stories,” Loyola junior outside hitter Mike Bunting said. “It’s funny to hear how emotional he was. He’s now cool, calm and reserved. I hear stories about how he used to have them run up on the track. He’ll still threatens it now, but we never do it.”

What hasn’t changed for Davis is his pursuit of an NCAA tournament spot. The Ramblers have finished first or second in the MIVA’s regular season five times under Davis, but they’ve never won the conference tournament and earned that automatic to the NCAA tournament.

In 2010, Loyola was as close as it’s ever been. The Ramblers built a 2-1 lead on Ohio State in the MIVA tournament championship, but fell to the Buckeyes in five games. Ohio State has won the conference tournament the past three seasons and has already defeated Loyola twice this season.

“I think when it comes down to it, they have more confidence coming in,” Bunting said. “Since I’ve been here, I think we’ve played 10 times, and they’ve beat us nine times. They come in, and they have that confidence. They have that swagger. They expect to beat us.

“The way they walk into our gym and even the way they talk to us before the match despite the way we push them every year, I don’t think they take us serious. That helps us. That’s a pro for us because it puts that chip on our shoulder and makes us to beat them even worse.”

Davis respects Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are standing between him and the program’s next hurdle.

“I’ve always had a saying when I was an athlete here: Always leave a place better than when you found it,” Davis said. “This program hasn’t been to the Final Four. I want to get there.”