Loyola Sports 2014-15: A Wish List

Just about one year ago today, Loyola was embarking on its first season in the Missouri Valley Conference.  I suppose I was like a lot of other Loyola fans:  I didn’t have any grandiose notions of spectacular achievements for the coming year.  I was mostly just happy to be out of the Horizon League, and my top goal for the season was to get integrated into the new conference and for our sports teams to show some competitiveness.

Now that Loyola’s second year in the MVC is about to begin, I’m thinking about all that’s happened over the past year and where we are now.  I wouldn’t say we’re totally integrated into the MVC, but we made some good strides.  We had a couple of upsets in men’s basketball, we won a conference tournament game, and we had the league freshman and newcomer of the year.  The women’s basketball team won a conference tournament game and finished out of the league basement under a first-year head coach who showed some promise.  Softball reached the league tournament final, and had a lead with only a few outs from winning the championship before a taking a tough loss.  Men’s basketball was the only sport where we finished last in the league.  And we won a National Championship (!!!!!!) in men’s volleyball—something that was far beyond my wildest expectations.

In thinking about Year Two in the MVC, I guess the main goals I’d like for us to accomplish is to shore up some of our weaknesses as a program, prove that the good things we accomplished last year were not flukes, and make some progress toward establishing ourselves in the top half of the league.  Here are a few things I’d like to see over the coming year:

  1. Scheduling Improvement.   In most (but not all) sports, the MVC is a much more competitive league than the Horizon.  Most of last year’s schedules were made before we were members of the MVC, so I didn’t count the scheduling weaknesses as a negative.  But now that we’ve had a year to clear off previous obligations from our schedules, we should be scheduling better.  The 2014-15 women’s basketball schedule is already out, and it is excellent.  I hope we see the same improvement in men’s basketball, and early indications are that we will.
  2. Attendance Improvement.   Last year’s attendance in men’s and women’s basketball was an embarrassment.  Yes, we had one of the worst winters in a generation, but given our entry to the MVC and a legendary new coach for women’s basketball, it was shockingly bad.  I don’t know who dropped the ball or what combinations of factors led to it, but it has to change immediately.  Better scheduling should help, but it can’t be the only improvement.  There shouldn’t be a single men’s basketball game with less than 2000 this year, a women’s basketball game with less than 800, or a men’s volleyball game with less than 800.  Anything less is simply inexcusable.
  3. Making a Run at a Conference Title.   Although Loyola only had one last-place finish in the league, the best finish was a distant third place in women’s soccer.  In every sport, Loyola was winless against the regular season conference champion, with the exception of one softball game.  I would like to see a legitimate run at a conference championship in at least one sport.  At this point, women’s volleyball and women’s soccer seems like the most likely possibilities—women’s soccer plays conference favorite Illinois State at home this year after losing 1-0 on the road to the conference champions the past two seasons.  Women’s volleyball came within two points in a fifth game of upsetting this season’s favorite Northern Iowa on the road last season.  A fourth-place or better finish in women’s basketball would also qualify, positioning the team to make a good run in the conference tournament.
  4. Turning the Corner in Men’s Basketball.   The only sport where we finished last in 2013-14 is unfortunately also our flagship and most important sport.  Despite having one of the most talented players in the league in Milton Doyle, the men’s basketball team finished last and lost 9 of the 16 players listed on the roster this time last year.   Finishing out of the basement in 2014-15 would at least show that the program is moving in the right direction with the roster turnover and promising new talent.  If men’s basketball can avoid the cellar—even barely— and hold on to all the young players after the season, it would position Loyola well for a top-half finish in 2015-16.
  5. Landing an Athletic Director for the Long Run.  Loyola is in a great position to establish itself as a top quality athletics program, but only with a strong and insightful athletic director at the helm.  The building blocks and raw potential are all there, it’s just a matter of having focus and foresight to move the program in the right direction.  While the previous AD made many positive moves, some areas (fundraising, attendance, marketing emphasis, etc.) were not well served at all.  The Loyola job has become a lot more attractive in the past few years, with facilities upgrades, membership in the MVC, a renewed commitment from the administration, and a national championship in men’s volleyball.  Hopefully the next AD will be a talent worthy of the opportunity.

 

2014 Men’s Soccer Preview

Unlike on the women’s side, the MVC is a top conference in men’s soccer, ranking 11th in league RPI in 2013—even after losing perennial men’s soccer power Creighton from the previous year.  Three of the seven MVC men’s soccer teams ranked in the top 100 in RPI in 2013:  Bradley (#49), Drake(#61), and league champion Missouri State (#97).  Loyola was picked to finish seventh (last) in the MVC preseason poll and sixth by Ramblermania as a newcomer to the league in 2013, but finished the year in fifth place with a 2-3-1 record (6-11-2 overall).

The 2014 Loyola Ramblers return seven starters from their inaugural season in the MVC, a season that was highly competitive except for defensive meltdowns in a few  games against top competition.  Against Big East, Big 10, and ranked opponents the Ramblers were 0-5 and outscored 18-4; against all others Loyola had a respectable 6-6-2 record and were outscored by only two goals on the season.  Loyola will need to put goals in the back of the net more consistently and play tighter defense to compete this year, especially given the loss of their second-best scorer Eric Nock to graduation.

Senior Brian Bement will be expected to take up much of the scoring slack.  The mercurial forward ranked 2nd in the MVC last season in goals scored with eight, despite coming off the bench in limited playing time for most of the second half of the season.  Two juniors– midfielder Ryan Howe and forward Jake Savino will need to score more consistently.  Big 6’4” freshman  forward Elliot Collier from New Zealand may add a slightly different offensive look to this year’s team.  Senior Brian Lunar, junior Daniel Hare, and sophomore Kirill Likhovid will anchor the back line in front of experienced junior goalkeeper Tim Dobrowolski.

Defending league regular season champs Missouri State are the favorites to win the conference in 2014.  MSU returns nine starters from last year’s team that featured a smothering defense that allowed only eight goals on the entire season, and had a stretch of seven consecutive games (plus four overtime periods) without allowing a single goal.  Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, picked to finish first last year and returning almost all of their starters from 2013, may challenge for the league title along with Bradley and Evansville (also returning nearly all their starters).

It would be encouraging to see Loyola match their fifth place finish from 2013, but absent a very surprising season-long performance from a newcomer or an epiphany on the back line, Ramblermania sees the conference race shaping up like this:

  1. Missouri State
  2. Evansville
  3. SIUE
  4. Bradley
  5. Drake
  6. Loyola
  7. Central Arkansas

The regular season kicks off at Loyola Soccer Park on Sat., Aug. 30 at 7:00 p.m. when Dayton visits in a return game from last season.  The conference season begins Sat., Sept. 27 when Bradley visits Loyola Soccer Park at 7:00 p.m.

2014 Women’s Soccer Preview

Last year, Loyola was picked to finish seventh (last) in the MVC women’s soccer standings.  The Ramblers surprised many in their first season in the MVC, finishing third with a 3-3-0 conference record and 6-8-6 overall—but Ramblermania wasn’t surprised, picking Loyola to finish second in the conference.  Only a double-overtime home loss to Missouri State kept the Ramblermania prediction from coming true.

The 2014 Ramblers promise to be a more experienced version of the 2013 team.  For the past several years, the Ramblers have been one of the stingiest teams in their league on defense.  The Ramblers were second in the MVC in goals allowed in their inaugural campaign in the league, while ranking fourth in goals scored.  Last year’s roster featured only four seniors, only two of whom were regular starters.  Unfortunately, one of the lost players was Loyola’s most prolific scorer, Monica Stonebreaker, who scored or assisted on eight of Loyola’s 18 goals on the season.

The additional goal scoring in 2014 will have to be made up from experienced players like senior forward Sammy Gage, who ranked first in goals scored and second in points despite only starting six of Loyola’s 20 matches.  Loyola’s second highest returning goal scorer is sophomore defender Hailey Merrill, who was named to the pre-season MVC team.  It’s likely that Loyola will have to see more scoring from midfielders like senior Monika Lee, junior Jessica Bean, and sophomore Alex Gage– each of whom scored only one goal last season.

The back line for the Ramblers will be experienced and solid once again in keeping the pressure off senior goalkeeper Monica Gonyo.  The Ramblers lost defender Alex Brown to graduation, but the core of the back line remains otherwise intact.  The defensive philosophy of Loyola’s fourth-year head coach Barry Bimbi should be familiar to the players seeing most of the minutes.

The 2014 MVC Preseason poll nearly mirrored the finish of the 2013 conference standings, with the Ramblers picked to finish third behind Illinois State and Indiana State.  However, the young Ramblers have been very competitive with those two teams the past two seasons, going 2-0 against Indiana State and 0-2 (in two 1-0 road losses) to the powerful offense of Illinois State.  The difference this year is Loyola will face preseason conference favorite Illinois State at home on Sat., Oct. 11.  If the Ramblers can steal a victory against Indiana State for the third consecutive year in the conference opener at Terre Haute on Fri., Sept. 26, Loyola might be able to challenge for the conference title.

Here is the Ramblermania prediction for the 2014 MVC women’s soccer standings:

  1. Illinois State
  2. Loyola
  3. Indiana State
  4. Evansville
  5. Missouri State
  6. Northern Iowa
  7. Drake

Loyola kicks off the regular season Fri., August 22 at Marquette in the Marquette Invitational. The first home match is Fri., Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. against Western Illinois.