Since Joe Smalzer graduated a year before Marist High School's boys volleyball team won the Illinois High School Association state championship, he's now trying to help his Loyola University team win a national championship..
From Palos Heights, Smalzer was an East Suburban Catholic Conference player of the year his junior and senior seasons, but didn't get the thrill of a team title.
The Loyola Ramblers earned the bid to host the 2014 NCAA Final Four May 1 and May 3 at the Gentile Center and it's not out of the question the hosts can keep the trophy in Chicago. The Ramblers were ranked with UCLA as co-No. 1 teams in the Jan. 25 American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
Last year, the Ramblers made it to the Final Four and were swept by the University of California Irvine in three sets in the semifinals. Loyola opened this campaign with a 3-2 victory over then-No. 1 Irvine to set the tone and are 9-1 heading into the pair of matches against Grand Canyon Friday and Saturday in Phoenix.
Smalzer, a 6-foot-8 opposite side, left-handed hitter, is coming off an All-American junior season. Through 10 matches this year, he has a team-best 102 kills and 31 serving aces.
"Obviously winning a national title is our goal," Smalzer said. "It's at our home. We've had some of the California teams come here early in the season because they wanted to see what it's like playing here, and our fans made for a great atmosphere.''
He'd like that ultimate finish, he is thinking ahead a little bit for next season. He hopes to latch on to a professional volleyball team abroad and said that Italy and Russia are hot spots for men's teams..
Smalzer said his sister, Claire, was an inspiration to get his career going.
"When she played softball, I played baseball," he said. "When she played volleyball, I played volleyball. She graduated from Duke and played volleyball there. I've followed in her footsteps.''
While California schools have been dominating the sport, Illinois schools, such as Lewis University in Romeoville and Loyola, are closing the gap. Smalzer played for the Frankfort-based Ultimate Club, which had brought home several national championships over the years.
"Volleyball is growing in the Midwest," Smalzer said. "It's good to keep a lot of good players in high school in the Midwest. Let's keep the Midwest guys in the Midwest. That will help us build and make this area stronger.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun