By Sean Savage
Charlie Sullivan found himself a long way from Alden Street this summer – 5,091 miles, to be exact – as he led the United States Boys U19 National Team to a fourth-place finish at the FIVB World Championship in San Juan, Argentina.
“Any time you have those three letters [USA] on your shirt and you hear the anthem going, it is both unique and exciting,” Sullivan, entering his 26th season as head coach of the Springfield College Men’s Volleyball team, said.
A summer prior, the group qualified for the world championship tournament by winning the Pan-American Cup in Guatemala. Now, the Americans found themselves on a bigger stage with higher stakes.
“You are playing against the best coaches in the world,” Sullivan said, who is the only Division III men’s volleyball coach to ever lead the U19 national team. “This is the top one percent of their age group in the world.”
Over the course of two weeks, Sullivan led his team to the highest finish ever for a U.S. Boys U19 Team in the FIVB World Championship.
The Americans opened with a match against Costa Rica, which they won in straight sets. The momentum carried through as they powered past Egypt in the same fashion.
However, their next matchup was against a very difficult opponent: the hosts, Argentina. “We were playing them in front of 6,000 people – we were both the enemy and underdog for sure,” Sullivan said.
The U.S. prevailed in what was a remarkable performance and clean sweep. Unfortunately, the Americans fell to Serbia the following day in a four-set match.
Although, with a 3-1 record, the States won its pool and then swept Puerto Rico in the Round of 16. They followed it up by beating Bulgaria in straight sets in the quarterfinals to claim a spot in the semifinals.
With a spot in the championship game in sight, the U.S. was clipped by France, 3–0, before dropping a hard-fought 3-1 contest to Korea in the bronze-medal match.
One factor that made the U.S. run all the more impressive is that Sullivan’s team had less preparation time than every other team. For a year, many national teams, such as Bulgaria, France and Argentina competed in pro leagues in preparation.
Meanwhile, Sullivan’s team only had two weeks to prepare, yet still found great success.
This begs the question: How did Sullivan even find himself here?
Well, he is no stranger to the U.S. National team – in the summer of 2014, Sullivan guided the U.S. Men’s Pan American Team to the silver medal of the IX Men’s Pan American Cup in Mexico. He has also worked with the U.S. Men’s National Team, serving as the head coach at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Coupled with this, Sullivan has seen an abundance of success with the Pride – including his overall record of 499-193 for a .721 winning percentage alongside 11 Division III national championships.
With his resume, there was no question of who to call into the coaching position.
Leading up to the tournament, the group set aside any nerves and relished the rarity of what was set out for them.
“Being able to absorb and observe the different cultural approaches to the game was a learning experience for sure,” Sullivan said. “Overall, there was a lot of respect for everyone.”
As the chapter comes to a close, Sullivan returns to Alden Street with a deeper understanding of the game as he gets ready for his 26th season with the team.
“In that environment, I learned a lot of new strategies,” Sullivan said. “It was a good sharpening of my coaching skills and knowledge.”
For the upcoming 2023-24 season, Sullivan wants to intertwine what he took away over the past two years to continue as a dominant collegiate team.
“I am always learning as a student through this experience,” he said. “With that, I can bring that learning experience back to Springfield College to develop some things.”
The focal point: team culture.
“I now have more time to spend with my team here, and one thing I want to do is to continue to definitively build our culture,” Sullivan said.
Photo Courtesy of Springfield Athletics