By Sam Leventhal
For the eighth time in school history, Springfield College men’s volleyball is number one overall in the AVCA preseason rankings. But to head coach Charlie Sullivan, there is only one ranking that matters.
“I hate being No. 1 in every poll except the last one,” Sullivan said. “I always want our players to be hungry and never satisfied. The No. 1 ranking gives them a feeling they have achieved. We have not even practiced yet. It is my job to show them that we have a lot more work to do. We never worry about losses; it is the wins that bring trepidation.”
Including their fifth consecutive trip to the national championship, which resulted in a loss to SUNY New Paltz, the men completed the 2016 campaign with a 28-4 record, including victories in the Morgan Classic over Harvard and New York University. They also finished inside of the top five in blocks and assists per set in the nation.
Springfield graduated several seniors who were crucial to team success, including Eric Johnson, Greg Woods, and Julian Welsh-White.
Johnson played a major role from behind the service line notching a Pride best 112 total serves for the season. Woods was second on the team in kills and kills per set from the right side and Welsh-White finished top 10 in the nation with 1.08 blocks per set and top five on the Springfield roster in hitting percentage en route to an AVCA Second Team All-American selection.
“We have graduated some great players in recent years. That just means that everyone will have to step up and fill the void,” Sullivan added.
Approaching the 2017 campaign, the Pride return many familiar faces, most notably Luis Vega, Luis Garcia Rubio, Ricardo Padilla Ayala. Libero Eli Irizarry Pares looks to be a featured player this season along with Vega, Garcia Rubio and Padilla Ayala, all of whom were All-American selections in 2016. Irizarry Pares posted 138 digs and 38 assists while competing in all 32 matches of his freshman season.
A key component to Springfield’s success this coming season will be dependent on who can fill the void left by Welsh-White. For much of last season, the Pride saw Welsh-White split time with Kyle Jasuta as a middle blocker.
Jasuta posted 102 kills in 75 sets over 28 games as a freshman. Most likely to share the wealth with Jasuta this season is junior Joseth Irrizarry Feliciano and sophomore Jonathan Rodriguez Lopez. Although Irrizarry Felciano only played in 20 matches last season for the Pride, he posted 86 kills at an impressive .611 clip in 28 matches during his freshman season. However, with a roster as deep as Springfield’s, Sullivan also has the option of using senior Shaun Ermi.
In the offseason, the Pride added a few more pieces to their puzzle to further deepen their roster. Junior outside hitter Sergio Figueroa Velez, a transfer in from Universidad de Puerto Rico, will add depth as an outside hitter. In a preseason match against Endicott, Figueroa Velez made the headlines with his match-high seven kills.
Sullivan has also added two freshmen in libero Johjan Mussa Robles, who was credited with 10 digs in his collegiate debut at Hope International, and right-side hitter Andrew Tsororos.
“All players will have to come off the bench and win a match for us this year,” Sullivan said. “We play our entire roster sometimes at tournaments. Everyone’s role is important for our success.”
As done in previous seasons, Springfield opened their schedule on the west coast beginning with a two-game split at Hope International on Jan. 13 and 14. The Pride also tacked on two victories against Rivier and Endicott to jump out to a 3-1 record.
Springfield will continue their road stint against Baruch University, New York University and Mount St. Mary before returning home to host the Morgan Classic on Feb. 3 and 4.