Senior Jim Dunbar had never played setter before being moved to the position early last season.
With one full offseason of experience, the 6-foot-1 Dunbar looked like he was in complete control of the offense in Tuesday’s season opener in which Loyola earned a 25-19, 25-16 win over Niles West in Wilmette.
“He’s really coming into his own now,” said Loyola head coach Lionel Ebeling, who’s in his 13th season with the Ramblers. “We liked that he was a lefty and tall. He makes our offense more dynamic. He’s the quarterback.”
It helps that Dunbar has a host of hitters on his side.
The Ramblers had three players with at least four kills Tuesday, led by sophomore Jack Howard, a 6-5 outside hitter, who finished with nine. Senior Matt Byrne, a 6-5 outside hitter, and junior Drake Johnson, a 6-7 right-side hitter, each had four kills apiece. Dunbar totaled 22 assists. He led Loyola with 588 assists last season.
“It’s nice to have those guys, especially with their height,” said Dunbar, one of three captains, along with Byrne and senior middle Luke Michels. “I can throw it up there high, and there’s a good chance they will be able to reach out and get it.”
Dunbar did more than pass the ball around. He had a team-best six digs to go with one ace and one block. He also put down a kill on a second touch in the second set that gave the Ramblers a 22-16 lead.
“Because of his background as a hitter, he can do things like that,” Ebeling said. “It makes it impossible for a team to defend.”
The Ramblers erased a 15-10 deficit in the first set with a 9-0 run that included three kills from Howard and two from Johnson. Howard had six of his nine kills in the first set.
“He’s going to be a phenomenal player,” Ebeling said. “He very well could be a Division I player if he keeps working hard and improving.”
Dunbar’s dazzling defensive play got the Ramblers a 1-0 lead in the second set, and they never looked back.
“When we were down in that first set, we took a timeout and everybody took a deep breath,” Dunbar said. “We started playing more as a team.”
The Ramblers are coming off a 25-12 season that ended with a three-set loss to Evanston in the regional finals. Howard led Loyola with 280 kills as a freshman. Byrne had 202 kills in his second varsity season a year ago.
Other returning players with varsity experience include senior middle David Martin, senior libero John Fox, senior setter Kevin White, junior outside hitter Bryan Ruz and Michels.
Junior middle Matt Wiertel, junior middle Nick Howard and Johnson are three varsity newcomers who will be contributors this season, according to Ebeling.