The Springfield College Pride linked arms, stone faced, just as it had been prior to each of their 29 games played in 2017. Faint booing streaked the boisterous introduction of a Springfield crowd with Puerto Rican flags, flamingos, and a deer head in hand, as the opposition marched in, garbed in jet black and dark maroon lettering. The onlookers raised the newest issue of the Springfield Student when the introduction of the players rang out, the athletes, regardless of scenario, pointing and waving in respect to the crowd, yet with a hint of amusement. 4 pm. The opening match of the NCAA Division III men’s volleyball Final Four was underway. Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that the atmosphere, equivalent in that of a soccer classic, would stew the fires of a rivalry that spent a full season to resurface. Stevens vs Springfield – Their first meeting since 2015, when the Ducks thwarted the efforts of the Pride for a repeat of a national championship.
“I came in from off the bench [in that game as a freshman, and all I remember is giving in to my jitters,” said Sean Zuvich. “[I remember] giving into my nervousness instead of using it as fuel to be a better player. I think that’s what changed between these two [matches]. I had a little angst, I wanted to prove myself to that team [Stevens].”
Though the contest would be decided in three sets, with Springfield moving on 3-0, intensity was high. The Pride fed off of it, and the Ducks countered it.
Set one began. The ball danced through the air, before it hovered too close to the net. Springfield’s Luis Garcia Rubio jumped at the opportunity and broke up the Ducks scoring attack with a block of Shankweiler. The ball ricocheted off of the Ducks’ blockers, and Garcia Rubio pointed his finger skyward as Blake Arena crackled with approval. But Stevens began play by executing with a certain air of nonchalance, as its unit attempted to establish a composure beneath the curtain of the home crowd adrenaline.
“Not being able to play against these guys during the regular season, it makes us think about the next matchup we have against them,” said Stevens setter Gabe Shankweiler. “It makes us want to prove ourselves against the best competition. You have to beat the best to be the best, [Springfield] proved it tonight.”
Even when losing a point, there would be a certain aura of coolness to the Ducks. Zuvich landed a kill in set one that struck the hardwood in front of the knees of Cagan Friend. 6-5 Springfield. Friend glanced over at the Pride’s unit, with a “touché” persona.
“The crowd was awesome today,” Shankweiler said. “We were really looking forward to it, sort of feed off of the crowd.”
Springfield played the role of aggressor when it came to both play and emotion. Its play may not have rattled Stevens, but with each play executed came a roar from the crowd and additional energy to further pull away from the Ducks. Set one ended 25-21 in Springfield’s favor, when Luis Vega drilled an ace into the Stevens backcourt. Vega yelled in triumph, chest bumping Ricardo Padilla Ayala, whilst screaming words of motivation to his teammate that was muted by the uproar of the crowd.
After battling through a second set which consisted of them committing four errors to the Pride’s zero, Stevens once again found their composure in set three. Despite hitting at a .167 clip, the Ducks took advantage of 10 Springfield errors, never sinking below a two point deficit.
“We were not embarrassed at any point in this match,” said Shankweiler. “We always tell ourselves go down swinging, go down hard. We’re not going to step back and play soft. It’s not how you’re going to win a match against a high level team.”
24-22 Pride in the third. The Springfield crowd began to bid their team’s opposition farewell. But it was a bit early for that.
“At the end of that set, when we were down two points we really got a spark coming from Alex [Carpenter],” said Shankweiler. “We were able to rattle off a couple of points. We were really looking forward to come back during crunch time, we had a really great rotation going for us.”
Stevens gave one last push towards sending their rival to a fourth set, silencing such jeers with three straight blocks to pull ahead 25-24. The crowd decibels rose and fell in anticipation between traded service errors between the Ducks (Dylan DeBoer) and the Pride (Vega). The lead traded hands four more times, beyond the 25 point mark, with the score hanging on the match point, 27-26 in Springfield’s favor. Sergio Figueroa Velez lined a serve towards the Stevens midcourt in search for a game-ending ace. The serve was controlled by the Ducks, and David Lehman rose above the net in attempt to tie the game for the 10th time of the match. But the ball sailed beyond the backcourt. 28-26 Springfield. The Pride poured from the sidelines, and Blake bellowed with jubilation with the Pride’s sixth straight ticket to the title game punched. It was over.
“It’s an honor to reach this point in general, so no matter who we face – it’ll be exciting to see who it is, but we’re more excited to see how we perform in [a title game] setting,” said Zuvich.
In the end, it was Springfield on a mission. A similar narrative and atmosphere will hold true tomorrow, for a rivalry even bigger than this one. The crowds parting chant erases any doubt of such truth. “WE WANT NEW PALTZ! WE WANT NEW PALTZ!”