Leader of the pack
Note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Loyola magazine. It is being re-run here as volleyball season approaches.
By Anastasia Busiek
Shane Davis (BBA ’03) was 23 years old when he took over as head coach of Loyola’s men’s volleyball team. He had just graduated with a degree in marketing.
“I said I wasn’t that interested in it,” Davis says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to coach. And I had no idea what I’d be doing if I did. I said I’d take it for a year until they could find someone qualified to do it.”
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In 2014, after 11 consecutive seasons as coach, Davis led the Ramblers to their first-ever NCAA volleyball championship—in their home stadium, no less. It wasn’t the first time a change of plans had worked out well for him.
“My first love was football,” Davis says. “I come from a small town in Iowa. The whole town shuts down to watch a game. I played every sport, just so we’d have enough players to make a team, but I really wanted to play football. And I was pretty good.”
Colleges started recruiting Davis, but he became interested in volleyball and thought he might have a brighter future in that sport. He redshirted at Loyola his first year and then played for the Ramblers for four years. When he took over as head coach, he had three years of experience as team captain under his belt.
“The AD said, ‘Here are the keys. You know where the office is,’” Davis recalls. “I unlocked the office and sat on the other side of the desk. In front of me was the chair I sat in for many years as a player. The old coach had given me a running list of what I should be doing and getting together and planning, and I jumped in.”
Many of Davis’s players were also his former teammates, but the transition wasn’t as difficult as one might think.
“These guys were my best friends, and now I was coaching them,” Davis says. “I did have to create some separation. I moved out of the area. I didn’t spend time with them off the court. But I was a three-year captain, so I was used to leading. That didn’t change much. Giving them instruction, telling them how to do something, finding the right wording—that came naturally.”
What didn’t come naturally was recruitment. Davis, who had been immersed at the college level for years, was unused to evaluating high school players.
“It wasn’t what I was used to,” Davis says. “I thought no one was talented. I couldn’t believe where people were going. That was the biggest challenge. And when I did get kids on campus, and their parents are sitting across the desk from a 23-year-old, that was another challenge.”
But he got the hang of it. He talked to other coaches. He watched more kids play, and got a better sense of what to look for. He watched old recruiting tapes from previous coaches, remembering where those players eventually went and comparing them to what they looked like then.
Davis, and the volleyball program, grew stronger. The 2013 team advanced to the national semifinals. The 2014 team went all the way.
“I knew we were good,” Davis says. “I knew we had a shot. My moment of grasping it was the first weekend when we played UC-Irvine, BYU, and USC. We lost to USC, but I knew if we kept improving, we’d be tough to beat. It was all part of the plan, from 2011 when [senior associate athletics director] Carolyn O’Connell put the bid in to host the tournament. All I had to do was get the right guys.”
The Ramblers played a great season, and on May 1, the NCAA tournament kicked off in Gentile Arena.
“Being there in the Final Four—it was one of the best moments of my life,” Davis says. “It was a wild week.”
Assistant Coach Mark Hulse was named Assistant Coach of the Year. Davis was named Coach of the Year. The Ramblers beat Penn State in the semifinals, and went on to drop Stanford for the championship.
Two days later, Davis’s wife Andrea gave birth to their second daughter. “I tried to name her Natty Champ,” Davis jokes. It didn’t fly.
The couple, who met playing volleyball at North Avenue Beach, named their daughter Jordyn, joining her older sister, Sydney.
For Davis, there’s no complicated formula for success.
“Win,” he says. “And not just on the court. Be the best in the classroom or at whatever you’re doing that moment. Do volunteer work and community service.”
Naturally, success is a team effort. Davis is quick to praise his players, assistant coaches, and staff, in whom he places the same confidence that allowed him to thrive in his role as head coach.
“From day one, I’ve been afforded a tremendous amount of responsibility and freedom in doing my job despite not having the longest coaching résumé,” says Assistant Coach Mark Hulse. “That’s putting a lot of stock and trust in potential, but I imagine someone felt the same way about Shane when he was offered the head coaching position 12 years ago. Sometimes the best way to learn is just to dive in headfirst.”
And, of course, there are the fans. “We couldn’t get it all done without the support of our fans and administration,” Davis says. “We appreciate it.”
On the heels of victory, Davis is gratified and excited for the next season. “Every once in a while a great team comes along. You win a national championship,” Davis says. “It takes a while to get back to that, but we’ve reloaded. I don’t see us taking steps back. We’re trying to build a sustainable powerhouse.”