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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.