By Joe Arruda
The Springfield College men’s volleyball team chanted amidst a 3-0 sweep of Stevens College in their 2018 NCAA National Championship victory.
In a sport largely based on momentum, it is important for the entire team to be involved. For Springfield, involvement on the bench is something they pride themselves on.
Having competed in all seven national championship matches since the NCAA recognized men’s volleyball in 2012, and winning five of them, that energy is working for the Pride.
“I’ve seen a guy on the bench never get on the floor and win a national championship, just because of how good he was at keeping the communication on the bench going towards the players, keeping the energy on our side of the court,” said Springfield College head coach Charlie Sullivan.
The bench provides valuable assistance for the players on the court. It is a common misconception that the players on the bench are out of the game.
For the Pride they are in their own role. One that is crucial to the on court performance.
“They help our energy pick up, and it just makes everything easier for us once they’re celebrating, cheering for us, every single rally, every single point. And we just feed off them,” said senior Eli Irizarry Pares.
This year, the Pride’s spark comes in the form of an unlikely source: their libero – the defensive position on the floor who is meant to remain calm and collected.
Junior Johjan Mussa Robles is the opposite of that, but he does it well.
“Johjan definitely has a unique, and excited personality which is cool,” Sullivan said. “He is very boisterous and animated, and really that has helped us play at a higher level.”
Hailing from Caguas, Puerto Rico, Mussa Robles faced a rather strong learning curve as he got acclimated to Western Massachusetts.
“The main challenge was English,” said Mussa Robles. “Even though I know English, and I like to think that I’m pretty fluent, because in Puerto Rico we have to learn English since we’re pretty young.”
“The biggest challenge other than the language was basically adjusting to a new life, a new home, and adjusting to being alone. But I’ve dealt with it, and it helps that through the years we’ve had a lot of Puerto Ricans on the team. That really helps.”
Being raised in a family of volleyball players, Mussa Robles began playing at the age of five. He explained that in Puerto Rico, players tend to start playing the sport at a really young age.
In his freshman season, Blake Arena hosted the NCAA National Championship game. The atmosphere around campus was electric, not only for the players but for the entire Springfield College community.
The success of the men’s volleyball program was under the spotlight with the Pride of Springfield coating the Blake Arena stands in white. As a freshman on the team, Johjan was able to see the reason he chose Springfield College. In his time as a student-athlete, he is two-for-two with national championships.
“It’s a privilege,” he said. “I know when I got here in 2016, they lost the two previous years. And to have the opportunity to win in my freshman year at home was amazing. That is something I will never forget.”
The entire program does their best to maintain the humility necessary to win. In a preseason interview, Sullivan expressed the struggles that come along with the expectations to win. He noted the difficulty of maintaining the focus and learning to get better as the season progresses, rather than just sitting on the throne waiting for someone to take them down.
“Every season is different. Every season has new people, every season has new challenges, every season has a new mentality, new relationships to build on. But every year we have the same focus, and it’s to win,” Mussa Robles said. “Not only to win, if we don’t win, our focus is playing national championship level. If we lose playing national championship level, that’s fine. But we’ve proven that when we play national championship level, we are really hard to beat.”
Mussa Robles uses his voice to his advantage. It is a voice of encouragement and focus. When the Pride play, it is as if more than one game is being played. There is the game on the court and the battle of the benches. Who can be louder? Who can help their team more? While it is not necessarily directed at the other team, the success of the benches is noticeable on the scoreboard.
“Volleyball is all momentum based,” said Sullivan. “Our play increases if we move our feet and move our mouth. It not only makes our play better, but the other team’s worse.”
When Mussa Robles joined the team in 2016, he was playing behind then-sophomore Eli Irizarry Pares who earned the Off The Block Division III National Libero of the Year honor that season. Irizarry Pares, now a senior, has switched positions upon coach’s request and is second on the team in kills as a hitter. This position switch opened up the libero spot for Mussa Robles.
Irizarry Pares recognizes the impact that his friend and teammate has on the team, and the overall importance of a positive bench.
“Johjan is an amazing teammate. He is probably the most vocal guy no matter if he is on the court or off the court, you’ll know when he’s around because you’re gonna hear him from a mile away,” said Irizarry Pares.
He understands the game to the point where he is a factor on the court, but also off the court. He leads the bench in chants, mostly in Spanish, which vary depending on what is happening in the game. This forces all players to pay attention and be engaged with every point.
“Since I’ve been here, on the bench we’ve tried to be as loud as possible because the bench players also have an important role, and I can say the more important role than the people on the court,” said Mussa Robles. “We’ve been coming up with a lot of cheers. Every time we have an ace we do one, every time we have a block we do one, when the other team hits the ball out we do one.”
As much as Mussa Robles is a presence as an athlete, he will not go unnoticed in the classroom either. A student in the Athletic Training program, he brings the same level of communication and passion to the classroom as he does to the court.
“He has a positive energy in the classroom, he has a positive energy in the labs, and clinically when he is working with teams he is always upbeat and energetic,” said Chair of the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, Dr. Sue Guyer. “It is really hard to be in a bad mood around Johjan. You can’t be in a bad mood because he won’t let you be.”
She described how after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Mussa Robles was unable to contact his family for at least three weeks. While they were dealing with the effects of the disastrous storm, he was at Springfield College maintaining his typical energy.
“Even through that whole process of the hurricane, not knowing where his family was, not knowing how they were, he came in here every single day with a smile, with energy high. He never dropped the ball on any of his academic responsibilities, and stayed positive through the whole thing, which is absolutely amazing,” she explained.
Guyer also described the advanced ways in which Mussa Robles is able to communicate on the field with athletes who are injured.
“He will talk to them in a very positive way, encouraging them, making sure that they’re feeling good about their treatment, and the rehabilitation, and their path of how they’re going to get back to the court or the field,” she said. “Not knowing it, he is actually using sports psychology in a really positive way by involving the athlete and choosing their treatment regimen.”
Whether it be in the classroom or on the court, Mussa Robles lets his presence be known to all anywhere near him.
As the Pride compete in 2019, they are determined to continue their success. The Johjan Mussa Robles effect is in full force as the team looks for their third straight national title.
Energy is their x-factor and it is sourced in the heart, and the larynx, of their libero.
Photo courtesy of Springfield College Athletics